Role Reversal Produces Similar Result + More from LSU Win at 2023 SEC Tournament

Hagen Smith, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs LSU
photo credit: SEC Media Portal

For the second time this season, Arkansas baseball’s left-handed duo out-dueled the best pitcher in the county Thursday evening.

Facing SEC Pitcher of the Year Paul Skenes, Hagen Smith got things started before turning it over to Hunter Hollan in a 5-4 win over LSU to automatically advance to the SEC Tournament semifinals in Hoover, Ala.

It was a similar formula to the one the Razorbacks used to win several conference games en route to a regular-season SEC title — but in reverse, as this was the first time Hollan came out of the bullpen in an Arkansas baseball uniform.

That didn’t change the result, though. Even if they weren’t quite as dominant as they were in the 10-inning win in Baton Rouge back in March, Smith and Hollan once again effectively shut down the potent LSU offense.

“In my opinion — at least who we saw, and we didn’t play everybody — Smith and Hollan are the two best guys we saw all year,” LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson said. “So that’s twice that they’ve used both of them against us to win.”

Thanks to numerous injuries, the Arkansas pitching staff has been no stranger to role changes throughout the season, but one constant had been Hollan getting the nod once every weekend.

He was the only pitcher start all 14 weeks and — aside from a couple of outings in which he was dealing with a leg injury — he was mostly dominant. It wasn’t until right before Will McEntire entered Wednesday’s game that Hollan found out he’d be coming out of the bullpen the next day.

“Coach Hobbs came over to me and just asked, ‘Can you go tomorrow?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’” Hollan said. “I didn’t know if what he meant by starting or coming out of the pen, and he clarified that after the game, and I was excited because it was something different.”

The format of the SEC Tournament, which is currently in a double-elimination portion but will shift back to single elimination beginning Saturday, prompted the move, according to Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn.

“We decided a couple days ago that there was a possibility that we would go this way if we won Game 1, got in the winner’s bracket, because if you lose, you’re thinking about I’ve got to give some of my starters some work and get them ready for the next weekend,” Van Horn said. “If you win, you know you’ve got at least two more games. And we just felt like we had a chance to win the game today, let’s go ahead and bring Hunter in.”

It was the first time Hollan has come out of the bullpen since he was a junior at Spring Hill High School in Hallsville, Texas, and he didn’t get to ease into things.

Taking over in the fourth inning, Hollan inherited a bases-loaded, two-out situation. He would have gotten out of it unscathed thanks to his strikeout of Alex Milazzo, but he threw one to the backstop for a run-scoring wild pitch.

The San Jacinto J.C. product breezed through his first full inning of work, after the Razorbacks took a 5-2 lead, and then worked around trouble the rest of the way. He was ultimately charged with two earned runs on six hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.

“You’ve just got to come in with the mindset that I’m going to compete in the zone and go with the game plan that you want,” Hollan said. “We had a really good game plan the first time we played them and we kind of stuck to that, and it worked out.”

Hollan’s early entry into the game — and Smith’s quick hook — were the result of a stretch pitch count. Van Horn said on the UA’s pregame radio show that he’d likely throw only 70-75 pitches.

His walk to load the bases in the fourth inning put him at 76 pitches for the day and that was it. When Van Horn went out to get him, Smith was visibly upset about the decision, despite knowing it ahead of time.

“We weren’t going to throw Hagen more than 70 pitches, whether it took three innings, five innings, or whatever,” Van Horn said. “I see on (the box score) it says 76. We thought he threw 70 on the nose. And you could see he wanted to stay in. He wasn’t done. He deserved to get that last out if he could.”

Perhaps being on that lower pitch count help Smith turn it loose a bit more, as his velocity was up to 96-97 mph early on, according to the SEC Network broadcast. That helped him rack up nine strikeouts, which was a season high and matched his career high set last year against Southeastern.

His outing likely would have been better had it not been for a bad route by Jace Bohrofen on a fly ball that should have ended the first inning, but instead fell in for a single. Not only did it directly lead to one of the two runs he allowed, but it also forced Smith to thrown an extra 10 pitches.

Even with that factored in, he was still impressive during his 3 2/3 innings, giving up those two earned runs on five hits and one walk.

Together, Smith and Hollan combined for 17 strikeouts, which was one shy of tying the UA single-game record. Their dominance against LSU is best illustrated by comparing their numbers in two games to the rest of the SEC when facing the Tigers:

Hagen Smith/Hunter Hollan3.321.3215.162.84.260
All other SEC pitchers7.571.838.906.16.285

“Getting strike one is probably the biggest thing, and I think that’s something that me and Hagen both did pretty good,” Hollan said. “Once you get strike one, it kind of opens up to where you can pitch a little bit. And you have to against a lineup like that. You can’t get behind often because they’re not going to miss.”

Chasing Paul Skenes

It was a matchup of two first-team All-SEC pitchers — something that had happened just twice in the previous 20 SEC Tournaments — as Paul Skenes was on the mound for LSU.

A strong candidate to win the Golden Spikes Award and be a top-two pick in this summer’s MLB Draft, the right-hander had been dominant all year, coming in with a 1.77 ERA, averaging 17.0 strikeouts per nine innings and holding opponents to a minuscule .161 batting average.

On Thursday, though, the Razorbacks made him look mortal — and it started before finally getting to him in the fourth inning.

Even though he reportedly touched 103 mph in the first inning and allowed only three base runners over the first three innings, there were signs that Arkansas was on the brink of a breakthrough.

Three batters worked the count full, including an impressive nine-pitch walk by Tavian Josenberger to lead off the first, and several Razorbacks made solid contact, but hit it right at defenders.

“It’s really important (to see a lot of pitches), especially against a guy like that in this kind of game,” Peyton Holt said. “We had a really good approach prior to the game that we talked about and Tavian’s first AB kind of set that tone. I think he did a really good job seeing pitches and it trickled down the lineup.”

Finally, in the fourth, Arkansas put together the big inning it has done so many times this year — but had rarely, if ever, happened against Skenes.

He plunked Jared Wegner to start the inning, but then gave up three straight singles to Brady Slavens, Caleb Cali and Peyton Holt — the latter two of which resulted in RBIs that tied the game.

“We just tried to get on that heater,” Holt said. “It’s a really good pitch, and I think we did a good job of that, kind of put in a keyhole, not chase anything outside the zone.”

Harold Coll made the first out of the inning by flying out to center, but Parker Rowland walked to load the bases. Tavian Josenberger then popped into an infield fly, but only after four straight foul balls. That got Skenes up to 88 pitches — 41 of which were thrown in the fourth — and led to an LSU pitching change.

“That was totally due to pitch count,” LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson said. “I can promise you, if it was any other situation, in any other game, he would not be coming out of the game right there, 1,000%.”

All five of those runners who reached eventually came around to score, albeit with the help of an error (more on that below), so only two of the five runs charged to Skenes were earned, However, that didn’t prevent him from picking up just his second loss of the season.

It matched the most runs Skenes has allowed in a game this season, as he also gave up five (four earned) in six innings against Kentucky on April 13. Excluding a three-inning outing at South Carolina cut short by a weather delay, it was by far his shortest start of the year at just 3 2/3 innings. He had gone at least six innings in his other 13 starts.

“I tip my hat to their hitters because they did something nobody has done all year,” Johnson said. “They were able to get to the right part of the ball and hit some balls hard through the infield and created three or four good at bats in a row.”

Big Inning Aided by Rare Call

When Paul Skenes came out of the game, he was replaced by left-hander Riley Cooper. Inheriting a bases-loaded situation, it appeared he got the Tigers out of it with the game still tied when shortstop Jordan Thompson caught a pop up by Kendall Diggs in shallow center.

As the SEC Network began to go to commercial break, though, it was revealed that Diggs’ bat actually hit catcher Alex Milazzo’s glove on the swing, resulting in a catcher’s interference — a call that was confirmed after a challenge by LSU. That resulted in Diggs being granted first base, which brought in the go-ahead run.

“He hit his glove when he swung,” Van Horn said. “The amazing (thing) was he hit his glove — we heard it, we saw it — and the ball still made it to the outfield. If he hadn’t hit his glove, he might have hit it over his head, the way we look at it.

“Other people look at it a different way, but he definitely hit his glove. I don’t know that big board replay showed, you could really see, but we knew immediately that he hit his glove.”

It’s a relatively obscure rule, but one Arkansas baseball fans have been well aware of since Luke Bonfield reached via catcher’s interference seven times in 2017.

The Razorbacks nearly had one in back-to-back games, as Diggs also hit the catcher’s glove on his swing in the seventh inning against Texas A&M on Wednesday, but it was officially scored as an error on the shortstop because he briefly bobbled the ensuing ground ball and never threw to first. Teams have an option to take the result of the play and, because everyone was safe anyways, Arkansas didn’t worry about taking it to review, as catcher’s interference wasn’t immediately called on the field. Replays clearly showed Diggs’ bat making contact with the glove, though.

Even without that particular play, Diggs has now reached via catcher’s interference three times this year. The first was was back on Feb. 18, when he did it against TCU, and then he did it against Missouri State on April 25.

Not only did Thursday’s catcher’s interference bring in the go-ahead run, but it also extended the inning and Jace Bohrofen made the Tigers pay with a single up the middle that drove in two more runs.

It was a big swing for Bohrofen, as he had been in the midst of a seven-game slump. Leading up to that at bat, he was just 2 for his last 29, resulting in his batting average dropping 47 points to .326.

“He has been struggling,” Van Horn said. “He’s had such a good year for us that obviously we’ve got to get him going if we’re going to have some success next weekend. Hopefully that’ll kick him into gear a little bit.”

The Peyton Holt Experience

With a tip of the cap to Brady Slavens and his 12-game hitting streak, no Arkansas baseball player has been hotter at the plate recently than Peyton Holt.

The Greenwood native is riding an eight-game hitting streak of his own and has multiple hits in his last seven. In fact, he has multiple hits in eight of 11 games since taking over at second base for Peyton Stovall, who is out with a torn labrum.

That includes a 2 for 4 performance against LSU, with both of his hits coming against Paul Skenes, on Wednesday. The second of those was a game-tying RBI single that came at the end of a 10-pitch at bat in which he fouled off five pitches.

As big of a play that was, Holt made an even bigger one just a couple innings later.

LSU had runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth inning when Jordan Thompson hit a ground ball that forced Harold Coll to range to his right to field. He was able to throw to second for a force, but the Razorbacks had no shot at turning the traditional 6-4-3 double play because of the time it took to get the out at second.

Rather than firing to first anyway or just holding on to the ball, Holt zipped a throw over to third. Hayden Travinski had rounded the base a little bit and Caleb Cali was able to get the tag down just before he dove back to the bag, resulting in a rare 4-6-5 double play.

“I thought that Peyton Holt made a super smart heads-up play on the double play ball,” Van Horn said. “He knew he couldn’t get that double play at first, ball was hit in the hole a little bit, and he spun and made a perfect throw, heads-up play by Cali being there at the bag waiting, and I think that really slowed them down.”

It was a huge play because instead of having runners at the corners with only one out, there were two outs and a runner on first. Instead of Brayden Jobert getting a sacrifice fly on his fly out to right, it ended the inning.

“We’ve never actually worked on that play,” Holt said. “It’s just one of those things you keep in your back pocket, especially as a second baseman, like you know you’re not going to get the guy at first. And it was just something that I knew that I could do, and I did it, and it worked out. It was really big for us.”

Having won a state championship as Connor Noland’s go-to receiver and then as a starting quarterback at one of Arkansas’ powerhouse high school football programs, Holt was already known across the Natural State despite originally signing to play baseball at Louisiana-Lafayette and then spending two years at Crowder C.C.

Since being inserted into the lineup, Holt’s legend has only grown and not only is he a fan favorite, but he’s quickly gaining the respect of those around the league.

“Gritty player, does the things that help your team win,” LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson said. “You look at what Holt has done, you can’t do much better than that over the last few weeks. Great teams have guys that can step in and fill roles when guys go down.”

Holt started a couple of games at third base early in the year when Cali was scuffling and also got some midweek action, but his playing time was sparse. Despite not getting many opportunities, he performed well, hitting .308 in 26 at bats over the first 45 games of the season.

Since taking over full-time at second, Holt is slashing .452/.511/.619 with nine RBIs, 10 runs and three stolen bases — not to mention countless web gems, like his snap throw to third against LSU.

“It sucks to have Stovall go down for the year — that’s a really big part of our lineup — but Peyton Holt has been amazing for us,” teammate Hagen Smith said. “Defense, offense, he’s been really good for us down the line.”

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

With the win, the Razorbacks automatically advanced to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, which is when the event returns to single elimination. They’ll face the winner of the LSU-Texas A&M game — which is scheduled for 3 p.m. CT Friday — on Saturday.

If Arkansas wins that game, it would advance to the conference tournament championship game, which is set for Sunday afternoon.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • This is the fourth time in the last six SEC Tournaments that Arkansas has reached at least the semifinals of the event. That’s tied with Florida for the most such semifinal appearances over that span. LSU can join that list with a win over Texas A&M on Friday.
  • The Razorbacks are now 4-11 all-time against LSU at the SEC Tournament. Thursday’s win snapped a six-game losing streak to the Tigers in the event.
  • With a fourth-inning single, Brady Slavens extended his hitting and on-base streaks to 12 and 22 games, respectively. Those are both the longest active streaks on the team.
  • Including his nine against LSU, Hagen Smith is now up to 102 strikeouts this season. He needs just nine more to crack the top 10 on the UA single-season list. He’s also up to 192 strikeouts in his career, which is 31 away from cracking the career top-10 list at Arkansas.
  • As a team, the Razorbacks have racked up 514 strikeouts. That is the 10th-most in school history, surpassing the 2009 team that had 511. The single-season record is 574, which they set last year.

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