Hogs’ Shocking Finish Overshadows Celestial Event + More from Game 1 vs. MSU

Arkansas baseball, Mississippi State baseball, Arkansas vs Mississippi State
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — Even with the Northern Lights visible in the area, Friday night’s most surprising event in Northwest Arkansas wasn’t celestial, but rather something that unfolded at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Hagen Smith looked mortal and the No. 5 Razorbacks’ bullpen faltered, but the bats came alive late and saved the day in a 7-5 series-opening win over No. 14 Mississippi State.

It happened without much help from the Bulldogs, too. Arkansas (41-9, 18-7 SEC) used four singles and just one walk to score three runs in the deciding eighth inning, with Wehiwa Aloy hitting the game-tying RBI single and Hudson White delivering the go-ahead two-run single.

Using their offense to win a game is a complete 180 from the Razorbacks have typically done en route to a top-5 ranking. More often than not, they’ve leaned on their stellar pitching staff, especially on Fridays with arguably the best pitcher in the country on the mound, while the offense has been opportunistic at best.

“What’d we do, walked nine and they walked one and we won?” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said incredulously as he sat down for his postgame press conference. “What’s up with that? (That’s) baseball.”

Mississippi State (32-17, 14-11) took its first lead of the game with two runs in the top of the eighth that were charged to closer Gabe Gaeckle and admittedly felt good about its position with six outs to go.

“We got (Smith) out early and then they brought in their best guys,” Mississippi State first baseman Hunter Hines said. “We put up five runs on their best pitchers. We thought going into the eighth we had it, but that’s baseball and they are a great team.”

All it did, though, was set the stage for the late-game heroics, which started with Peyton Holt poking a 1-2 slider into left for a leadoff single.

After a strikeout by Peyton Stovall, Jared Sprague-Lott notched his third hit of the game with a single to center. At that point, the Razorbacks had something going with runners on first and second with only one out.

“It was away from him and he almost went out and hit it with one hand if you really look back at the video,” Van Horn said. “He got extended there and just hooked it. … Then when Jared singled to right, it was like, ‘Wow, here we go. We’ve got a shot here.’”

Sure enough, Aloy tied it up with an RBI single up the middle — also his third hit of the game — and then Ben McLaughlin walked to load the bases.

That brought up the hot-hitting White, who hit a two-run homer earlier in the game. He stayed in the ballpark this time, but singled to left to drive in two more runs and give Arkansas the lead.

Not only is he 7 for 14 over the last four games, but he’s homered twice in the last three and in a span of only eight at bats. Before going deep at Kentucky, White went 109 at bats without a long ball, as his only other one came in his second plate appearance of the year.

“It was just a few adjustments in my swing, something that I’m kinda battling with all year,” White said. “I finally felt like I turned that curve and it feels a lot better.”

Making the inning even more impressive is the fact that it came against Mississippi State right-hander Tyson Hardin, who entered the game with a 2.19 ERA and hadn’t allowed an earned run over his previous 14 appearances, a stretch of 19 1/3 innings dating back to Feb. 24.

“I just thought the ball was up, a little bit up,” Mississippi State baseball coach Chris Lemonis said. “His stuff was there, he just left the slider up to lead off and a couple of fast balls that they hit were up in the zone.”

Prior to that rally, the Razorbacks hadn’t notched four hits in a single frame since doing it in the seventh inning of Game 2 against Florida on April 27 — a span of 44 innings against SEC opponents. They also came into the game hitting just .195 with runners in scoring position during conference play.

While it might not be quite as rare as the Northern Lights making an appearance in the Natural State, but it was still an encouraging sign for a team trying to lock up a top-8 national seed and an offense that has been heavily criticized for underperforming much of the season.

“Our pitching has been so good all year,” Van Horn said. “We’ve talked about this, that this was going to happen and we would have to step up offensively and I thought we did a really good job tonight offensively.”

Wood Slams the Door

The game was far from over after Hudson White’s two-run single, though. Arkansas still needed to get three more outs and that proved to be more difficult than Dave Van Horn probably would have liked.

Mississippi State actually loaded the bases against Will McEntire with no outs in the ninth, meaning the tying runs were in scoring position and the go-ahead run was on base. With usual closer Gabe Gaeckle already burned, the Razorbacks turned to Gage Wood.

The right-hander delivered, getting a couple of infield pop ups sandwiched around a strikeout to seal the win and earn his second save of the year. It was his first save since closing out the season opener against James Madison nearly three months ago.

“I just told myself that this is the moment that I dreamed about since I committed here and I’ve been in those positions before,” Wood said. “Tonight, I pulled through and we got it done. I was just listening to fastball middle from Hudson White right here and it worked out.”

Even though he emerged as the Razorbacks’ closer during his freshman campaign last year, Wood had some struggles earlier this season and seemed to fall out of favor when it came to the bullpen pecking order.

However, the Batesville native turned things around last week. After throwing three scoreless innings against Missouri State in his first career start last Tuesday, Wood threw a career-long 4 1/3 innings of relief against Kentucky on Saturday. It went so well that Van Horn mentioned he could take somebody’s spot in the weekend rotation.

Ultimately, Arkansas stuck with Brady Tygart and Mason Molina as starters. It could have been discouraging, but Wood didn’t sulk and stepped up when his number was called in a massive Game 1 win over a top-15 team.

“Really, I just wanted to do what was best for the team and whatever the coaches thought was best, and that was the bullpen,” Wood said. “That’s why they’re coaches. They made the right call.”

Luckily for the Razorbacks, Wood threw only 12 pitches to get end the game and should be available to pitch again this weekend, if needed.

Assessing Hagen Smith

In the midst of a super-human season, Hagen Smith looked like a mere mortal Friday night.

The left-hander still racked up 11 strikeouts — his 10th double-digit total in 13 starts — but lasted only five innings and gave up three runs. It was his shortest outing and most runs allowed since Opening Day on a frigid February afternoon against James Madison.

“He just didn’t have the command that he normally does,” Van Horn said. “We’ve kind of been waiting for it, honestly, because he’s been so good and so consistent. Maybe he’s got that behind him and he can move on now.”

Mississippi State made it hard on Smith right out of the gate, with Bryce Chance and David Mershon not only drawing back-to-back walks to start the game, but forcing him to throw 16 total pitches across their plate appearances. Even though Smith responded with three straight strikeouts, it was still a 30-pitch inning.

That got his pitch count up, which — even with a couple of perfect innings mixed in — contributed to his shorter-than-usual outing. It also didn’t help that he couldn’t get through the fifth unscathed after flirting with danger a couple of times earlier.

With the bases loaded and two outs, Hunter Hines cleared the bases with a double into the right field corner to tie the game at 3-3. Smith ended the inning by striking out the next batter, but he was at 94 pitches and Arkansas chose not to send him back out in the sixth.

It was a shock to the system to see that happen because Smith has been utterly dominant this year. Excluding a bad outing against James Madison in 30-degree temperatures to open the season, the Bullard, Texas, native had posted a minuscule 0.97 ERA over his previous 11 starts.

“That guy is one of the best in college, probably the best pitcher in college baseball right now, to be honest with you,” Lemonis said. “I don’t know that there is much better out there. If there is, then holy cow. That guy is really special. You are going to see him pitching in the big leagues soon.”

Kendall Diggs Update

For the first time this season, Arkansas played an SEC game without Kendall Diggs starting in right field.

It was a move Dave Van Horn had teased the day before and, even though he briefly considered moving him into the leadoff spot, the veteran coach ultimately decided to go through with keeping him out of the lineup.

“(I) was trying to give him a little bit more time to heal,” Van Horn said. “He’s feeling good. He came to me wanting to play today and I just said, ‘Hey, you’re going to come off the bench today.’”

Diggs responded with a great batting practice session, though, so the Razorbacks kept him as an option to pinch hit and that’s what he did in the eighth inning. Hitting for Ryder Helfrick in the eighth inning, the lefty drew a loud cheer from the crowd when drove the ball to deep left-center, but it was caught on the warning track.

Although Ben McLaughlin was able to tag up to third on the play, making it a productive out, Arkansas likely wanted to see something different to keep its big eighth inning live. Still, it was a good swing and he hit the ball hard.

Wit Diggs out, Van Horn started Ty Wilmsmeyer in center and slid Peyton Holt into Diggs’ spot in right field. Interestingly, he went with Jayson Jones in left field. It was just his second SEC start, and first since Game 2 against Missouri in the conference-opening series.

Jones went 0 for 4 and is now hitless in 10 at bats during conference play, dropping him below the Mendoza line for the season (.197). Wilmsmeyer went 0 for 3 and is now hitless in his last 26 at bats, lowering his SEC batting average to an abysmal .150. The Missouri transfer hasn’t had a hit since reaching on an infield single against Ole Miss on April 6.

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

The Razorbacks will have a chance to clinch the series when they take on Mississippi State in Game 2. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. and the game will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.

Right-hander Brady Tygart (4-2, 3.34 ERA) is slated to start for Arkansas and is looking to bounce back from a tough outing at Kentucky in which he lasted only three innings and gave up a career-high five runs.

The Bulldogs will counter with ambidextrous pitcher Jurrangelo Cijntje (7-1, 3.53 ERA). Although he’s capable of pitching with both arms, Van Horn said at the Swatter’s Club meeting earlier in the week that he’s primarily pitched as a righty this year.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • The announced attendance for Game 1 of the Arkansas vs Mississippi State series was 10,891. It was the 14th crowd of at least 10,000 at Baum-Walker Stadium this year.
  • Hagen Smith entered the day tied with Isaiah Campbell (2019) for sixth on the UA’s single-season strikeouts list, but ended it alone in third. Now with 136 this year, he moved past David Walling (128 in 1998), Jess Todd (128 in 2007) and Kevin Kopps (131 in 2021) and trails only Nick Schmidt (145 in 2006) and Walling (155 in 1999).
  • For his career, Hagen Smith now has 335 strikeouts. That is 10 shy of matching Nick Schmidt’s school record of 345.
  • Freshman Ryder Helfrick got the nod at designated hitter, marking his sixth start in 10 games. After going 1 for 3, he’s hit safely in five of those games and reached base in all six, going 5 for 17 (.294) with five walks and five strikeouts.
  • Making the Razorbacks’ eighth inning rally even more surprising was the fact that it didn’t include Peyton Stovall doing anything. He actually went 0 for 4 after coming into the day as the hottest hitter on the team, going 12 for 20 (.600) over the last four games.
  • Here are the metrics — exit velocity, launch angle and distance — for the home runs hit by Hudson White and Jared Sprague-Lott on Friday:
    • White (3): 101 mph, 26.0 degrees, 408 feet
    • Sprague-Lott (7): 103 mph, 30.4 degrees, 421 feet
  • Mississippi State is without center fielder Connor Hujsak this weekend because of a back injury. That’s a big blow to the Bulldogs, as he is their second-leading hitter with a .349 batting average to go along with eight home runs and 41 RBIs.
  • In Hujsak’s absence, Dakota Jordan slid over from right to center and Aaron Downs got the nod in right for his 18th start of the year. He went 1 for 5 with a strikeout, dropping his batting average to .278 — 71 points lower than Hujsak.

Arkansas vs Mississippi State Highlights (Game 1)

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Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Mississippi State Box Score (Game 1)


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