As Dave Van Horn said a couple of times after Sunday’s win, it wasn’t a “great” weekend for Arkansas baseball, but it was still a very successful trip to Arlington, Texas.
The Razorbacks got it handed to them by a very good TCU team, but sandwiched the loss with wins over Texas and Oklahoma State at the College Baseball Showdown.
In college baseball, winning two out of three games is the goal every weekend — especially away from home or against quality competition — and playing three Big 12 foes inside Globe Life Field to open the season checked both boxes.
Here are a few overarching takeaways from the first three Arkansas baseball games of 2023 before the Razorbacks shift their focus to the home opener against Grambling on Tuesday…
Big Weekend for Jared Wegner
After seeing Jared Wegner swing the bat in person for the first time upon his arrival in Fayetteville last summer, Dave Van Horn knew he had something special. He even told reporters that he couldn’t believe no one drafted him or tried to sign him as a free agent following his breakout year at Creighton.
Well, Major League Baseball’s loss was Arkansas’ gain. Wegner, who earned first-team All-Big East honors after hitting .343 with 11 home runs and 53 RBIs in 49 games last season, picked up where he left off with the Bluejays.
Hitting safely in all three games, the left fielder went 6 for 11 with four extra-base hits — a double, triple and two home runs — and eight RBIs over the weekend. He also walked twice and was hit by a pitch while striking out just twice. That works out to an impressive .545/.643/1.364 slash line and absurd 2.007 OPS, and it was enough to earn SEC Player of the Week honors.
“They tried to get him out all weekend,” Van Horn said. “They were going away, they were coming in…and he just kept taking good at bats and taking good swings and he saw a lot of pitches.”
It would be unreasonable to expect Wegner to sustain those numbers throughout the season, but it’s worth noting that he wasn’t doing it against some mid-major program and at Baum-Walker Stadium. He put up those numbers in a big league ballpark and against three teams ranked in various preseason polls.
What made Wegner’s performance even better was the fact that a lot of his hits came in big moments. He had the second of back-to-back hits that sparked the three-run seventh inning against Texas. The next day, he smacked a three-run homer to tie the game after TCU scored three runs in the top of the first. Against Oklahoma State, Wegner capped Arkansas’ five-run second and third innings with a bases-clearing triple and two-run home run, respectively.
Although there weren’t many chances for him, Wegner also made his presence known in the field Sunday when he tracked down a deep fly ball in the left-center gap that center fielder Tavian Josenberger appeared to misread. The hit was off the bat of leadoff man Zach Ehrhard in the first inning, so the play wiped out potential extra bases in Oklahoma State’s first at bat of the day, which could have changed the trajectory of the eventual blowout.
(Want to know more about how Jared Wegner ended up at Arkansas? Check out our exclusive interview with him from last summer.)
Not the Only “Rental Player” for Arkansas Baseball
Jared Wegner was just one of several so-called “rental players” who delivered in their first weekend with the Razorbacks. Former Arkansas catcher Michael Turner — the player whom a local radio show host directed the term during an on-air rant — took notice.
Perhaps the most surprising of the bunch was shortstop John Bolton. Although he started 92 games at Austin Peay, his statistics weren’t overly impressive. After hitting an abysmal .190 his first year with the Governors, he hit .287 with 18 doubles last year.
Those are respectable numbers, but he compiled them playing in the OVC — a solid mid-major conference, but a far cry from the SEC. When he committed, many outsiders saw Bolton as a depth piece and projected the more talented Harold Coll, a former top-100 recruit and touted JUCO transfer, as the starting shortstop.
However, Bolton beat him out during the preseason, fair and square. He was more consistent in the field and showed during the three weeks of scrimmages leading up to the season that he was capable at the plate.
That carried over into Opening Weekend. Hitting in the 9-hole, Bolton went 4 for 11 with a double and three RBIs. He also received three free passes (one walk, two HBP) and struck out only once.
Defensively, Bolton helped the Razorbacks turn a couple of double plays and didn’t commit any errors in 15 total chances. He may not have been able to turn two on a few plays Arkansas baseball fans grew accustomed to with Jalen Battles, but that’s to be expected — Battles was one of the best defensive shortstops in UA history. If he can continue to play error-free defense and hit for a decent average, Bolton will be one of the better under-the-radar portal pickups in the SEC.
Kansas transfer Tavian Josenberger was better than his 3-for-13 (.231) stat line indicates, as he hit a double and home run and was robbed of at least two hits thanks to spectacular defensive plays.
Oklahoma transfer Hudson Polk started the first two games at catcher and was solid behind the plate even though he allowed eight stolen bases — a number likely aided by the new pitch clock rules. His only hit was a big one, too, as he launched a solo home run to tie the game against TCU in the second inning.
On the mound, Nebraska transfer Koty Frank was one of three pitchers to make two appearances. The right-hander threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing three hits and notching a strikeout. His only real blemish was a two-out wild pitch that allowed an inherited runner to score in the Texas game.
Don’t Panic About Pitching
Before last season, Dave Van Horn touted his lineup as one of the best he’d ever had. Then, two weeks into the season, the Razorbacks were hitting just .213 with four home runs and averaging only 3.7 runs. It took a little bit, but they eventually got it going. Take out those six games and Arkansas hit .282 and averaged 7.4 runs the rest of the season.
This offseason, Van Horn remembered how his comments came back to burn him early in the year, so he was more reserved in interviews leading up to the 2023 season. However, he did tell reporters this was the deepest pitching staff he’s ever had.
It lived up to the hype against Texas and Oklahoma State, but a chunk of the fan base will probably only point to what happened Saturday as evidence of Van Horn overselling something in the preseason.
Yes, the Razorbacks gave up 18 runs to TCU. After not giving up that many runs since 2005, it was the second time in a span of three regular-season games they did it, as it also happened in last year’s finale at Alabama. It was ugly, no doubt out about it.
But it’s not the end of the world.
Right-hander Will McEntire has been one of Arkansas’ most dependable arms since stepping on campus — when given the opportunity — and just had a bad day. It also wasn’t as bad as his final line indicated. Things would have been much different if McEntire got the out when covering the bag on a grounder to first or if the Razorbacks turned the double play two batters later.
Instead, both bang-bang plays went TCU’s way and like good teams do — as Arkansas showed against Oklahoma State — the Horned Frogs made them pay. Moving forward, it is much more likely that McEntire pitches closer to the career 2.38 ERA pitcher he is than the guy who got chased in the second inning Saturday.
It was also encouraging to see left-hander Zach Morris be as effective as he was in 3 1/3 innings of relief because he had struggled mightily in scrimmages attended by the media this fall and preseason. He was charged with two runs, but both scored with Gage Wood on the mound.
Speaking of Wood, the freshman right-hander had as about as bad of a debut as possible, giving up a go-ahead RBI single on the first pitch of his career and then walking two straight batters, the latter of which came with the bases loaded. Granted it was a much different situation, but he got back on the mound the next day and struck out all three Oklahoma State batters he faced.
Van Horn probably would have liked to see a better outing from sophomore right-hander Austin Ledbetter, but the five relievers he called on were making their Division I debuts and are still fighting to establish a role on this year’s staff. The blowout provided an opportunity for the coaching staff to get a look at them in game action with little consequence.
Aside from that game, the pitching was brilliant. The Razorbacks allowed four earned runs on nine hits and four walks in 16 innings against Texas and Oklahoma State, which works out to a 2.25 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. They also had 23 strikeouts, for an average of 12.9 per nine innings, and limited the Longhorns and Cowboys to a .167 batting average.
Individually, Hagen Smith looked like an SEC ace, Hunter Hollan could have gone deeper if the situation required it, Brady Tygart looked like the guy who earned Freshman All-America honors last year, and Koty Frank and Cody Adcock seemed to be fine pitching twice.
The Razorbacks should be more than fine on the mound, even without projected ace Jaxon Wiggins.
Position Battle to Watch
The order may change, but most of Arkansas’ lineup appears to be solidified just three games into the season. At catcher, Parker Rowland started the third game in place of Hudson Polk, but that was a predetermined move by Dave Van Horn and it’s common for teams to use their backup catchers more frequently than other positions because of the physical toll that spot takes on your body.
However, one tweak Van Horn made against Oklahoma State that is worth keeping an eye on the next few weeks was inserting Jayson Jones at third base, replacing Caleb Cali.
It is an intriguing battle because, on one hand, you have arguably the Razorbacks’ best hitter during the preseason and on the other, you have an immensely talented freshman who Arkansas was lucky just to get to campus.
A transfer from the JUCO ranks who began his career at Florida State, Cali put up incredible numbers in intrasquad scrimmages attended by the media. In 71 at bats, he posted an incredible .437/.500/.845 slash line against what Van Horn has said is his deepest pitching staff ever.
However, in the first two games of the season, Cali went 0 for 8 with seven strikeouts. He notched a golden sombrero against Texas and the one time he put the ball in play, it resulted in a double play.
That led to Van Horn subbing in Jones during Saturday’s game. He flied out in his first at bat, but then homered in the ninth inning. It didn’t even make a dent in the 18-6 score, but it did earn him a start the following day.
Even though he officially went 0 for 2 with a foul out and strikeout, Jones got on base three times via walks. The first of those free passes might have impressed Van Horn the most, as he laid off some borderline pitches instead of getting overly aggressive with a couple of runners on base.
It’s also worth noting that Cali committed an error on Friday and couldn’t get the ball out of his glove quick enough for Arkansas to turn a double play on Saturday, while Jones made a couple of nice plays at third base.
In a conversation before the other season, another reporter made the comment that Jones definitely wouldn’t be in the Opening Day lineup, but he could be someone who gets a chance at some point and never comes out. Considering his talent, that wasn’t too crazy of a prediction, but it might happen sooner than anyone could have imagined if Cali doesn’t get it together quickly.
Play-by-Play and Analysis from the Past Week
The Week Ahead for Arkansas Baseball
Tuesday — vs. Grambling — 3 p.m. CT (SEC Network+)
Friday — vs. Eastern Illinois — 2 p.m. CT (SEC Network+)
Saturday — vs. Eastern Illinois — Noon CT (SEC Network+)
Sunday — vs. Eastern Illinois — 1 p.m. CT (SEC Network+)
2023 Arkansas Baseball Stats
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