Arkansas vs LSU: Former Hogs Assistant Unleashes Absolute Monster of a Pitcher

Paul Skenes, Wes Johnson, Arkansas baseball, LSU baseball, Arkansas vs LSU
photo credit: LSU Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

The transfer portal has been kind to the Razorbacks in recent years, but the Arkansas vs LSU series opener will be a reminder of what could have been.

Right-hander Paul Skenes, arguably the best pitcher in college baseball so far this season, will be on the mound for the No. 1 Tigers to start the top-5 showdown. A transfer from Air Force, he considered Arkansas and several other big-time SEC programs before landing at LSU.

The No. 4 Razorbacks will get an up-close look at what they missed out on when they step to the plate for Friday’s noon CT first pitch (moved up from 7 p.m. because of expected inclement weather).

“We pursued him like every team in the SEC and every team in the country,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “Great pitcher. Can also hit. I thought he was going to hit there, too. We pursued him about as hard as you can pursue.”

In five starts at LSU, Skenes is 5-0 with a 0.59 ERA and 0.53 WHIP. He’s held opponents to a .115 batting average and has a whopping 59 strikeouts with just four walks in 30 1/3 innings. Only two of the 12 hits Skenes has allowed have gone for extra bases, and both were doubles.

Not only does he lead the SEC in most major pitching statistics, Skenes also leads the country in WHIP, ranks second in strikeouts per nine innings (17.51), fourth in ERA and hits allowed per nine innings (3.56), and sixth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (14.75).

“You usually don’t get too many chances to get him,” Van Horn said. “He has got an incredible fastball, a good breaking ball, he throws strikes.  He’s big and can go nine innings and throw 110 pitches or whatever he needs to do.

“We’ll just go down there and do what we do. We’ll fight and if we get a chance, hopefully we’ll get him. If we don’t, we will move on to the next day.”

Despite playing the last two years at Air Force, Skenes was already a known commodity before this season. He was widely viewed as a first-round prospect, but has seen his stock skyrocket under the tutelage of former Arkansas pitching coach – and Sherwood, Ark., native – Wes Johnson, who played a big role in him picking LSU because of his MLB experience as the Minnesota Twins’ pitching coach.

He recently moved up to No. 3 in Baseball America’s list of the top 300 draft prospects, plus checks in at No. 4 on MLB Pipeline and No. 9 on Keith Law’s initial list for The Athletic.

Starting at catcher when he wasn’t pitching for the Falcons, he won the 2022 John Olerud Award as college baseball’s top two-way player with a .314/.412/.634 slash line with 13 home runs to go along with a 2.73 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 85 2/3 innings.

Although he was originally projected to also be their designated hitter, Skenes has been a pitcher only for the Tigers. Scouts are likely pleased with the decision because, as CBS Sports put it, “he combines a power forward’s frame (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) with a power pitcher’s arm.”

Any concerns about the level of competition he faced at Air Force have seemingly been erased by just how dominant he’s been this year. Skenes has pitched at least six innings and had at least 11 strikeouts in all five of his starts, which average nearly 96 pitches.

In his SEC debut, against a top-15 Texas A&M team, Skenes worked into the seventh inning for the first time, scattering four hits and racking up 11 strikeouts across 6 1/3 scoreless innings.

“I’ve been doing this 33 years and Stephen Strasburg, Mark Prior and Paul Skenes are the best I’ve ever seen,” Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle said afterward. “He’s pitching in the wrong league, I’ll tell you that. He needs to be in the American or National League.”

Skenes’ arsenal features a fastball that sits in the upper-90s and regularly touches triple digits on the radar gun and he maintains that velocity really well. On Opening Day, when a lot of pitchers are working on a pitch count, his 98th and final pitch was a 98 mph fastball for his 12th strikeout.

As if that wasn’t tough enough, he also mixes in a lethal slider. Against the Aggies, Skenes used an 87 mph slider to strike out Austin Bost — a proven veteran who doesn’t strike out much — just a few batters after striking out the leadoff man with a 100 mph fastball.

On paper, it should be the toughest challenge yet for the Razorbacks, who are off to one of their best offensive starts in recent memory.

Something Arkansas baseball fans can take solace in, though, is the fact that Arkansas has traditionally faired well against elite pitchers. In fact, the Razorbacks have beaten the last three eventual top-10 picks they’ve faced.

Two years ago, Arkansas chased Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker in the fourth inning at the SEC Tournament, but not before scoring five earned runs. In 2019, TCU held ace Nick Lodolo for the second game of the Fayetteville Regional and he allowed only one unearned run, but the Razorbacks got his pitch count up and chased him before he recorded an out in the sixth inning.

During the national runner-up season in 2018, Auburn’s Casey Mize was really good, allowing just two earned runs in seven innings, but Blaine Knight was slightly better and Arkansas handed the eventual No. 1 overall pick his first loss in a 2-1 game.

It’s also worth noting that Florida’s Brady Singer, a projected top-five pick who slipped to No. 18 in the 2018 MLB Draft, famously struggled against the Razorbacks. He had an 11.93 ERA and 2.02 WHIP in four career appearances against Arkansas, compared to a 2.75 ERA and 1.08 WHIP against all other opponents, and has already reached the big leagues.

How to Watch Arkansas vs LSU

Date: March 24-26

Friday — noon CT
Saturday — 1 p.m. CT
Sunday — noon CT

Location: Alex Box Stadium (Baton Rouge, La.)

TV/Streaming: SECN+/SEC Network (Friday), SEC Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday)

(NOTE: Friday’s game was originally scheduled for 7 p.m. CT and ESPN2, but inclement weather led to it being moved up to noon. The first 30 minutes or so must streamed on SEC Network-Plus, but it will then move to SEC Network following the conclusion of Kentucky’s Pro Day.)

Scouting LSU Baseball

2023 record: 19-2 (2-1 SEC)
Rankings: No. 1 (unanimous)
Head coach: Jay Johnson (2nd season)

After winning 40 games and coming within a game of advancing to the super regionals last year, LSU went to work and had an incredible offseason in the portal. Baseball America ranked its transfer class No. 1 in the country.

In addition to Paul Skenes, the Tigers also landed two other stud pitchers — right-handers Christian Little from Vanderbilt and Thatcher Hurd from UCLA — and one of the country’s top sluggers in Tommy White from North Carolina State.

They haven’t disappointed. White is slashing .409/.512/.803 with six home runs and 34 RBIs, Hurd is LSU’s Sunday starter with a 2.57 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 21 innings, and Little has made a team-high eight appearances with a 1.80 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 15 innings.

Of course, LSU is getting big-time production out of its home-grown players, too. Dylan Crews, now a junior, has a case to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s MLB Draft and is slashing .515/.656/.926 through 21 games. He has 2.5 times as many walks (25) as strikeouts (10) and his on-base percentage ranks first in all of Division I — by 52 points.

Rather than begin his professional career, Gavin Dugas returned as a super super and is hitting .355/.512/.645. On the other end of the experience spectrum, top-50 signees Jared Jones (.365/.455/.778) and Paxton Kling (.327/.439/.636) have lived up to the hype.

Not included among the five LSU regulars hitting above .300 is veteran Tre’ Morgan, a two-time SEC All-Defensive Team selection who hit .341 over his first two years, but is off to somewhat of a slow start with a .294 batting average.

He didn’t come out of the transfer portal, but left-hander Nate Ackenhausen has also been a big addition, literally (6-foot-2, 240) and figuratively, for the Tigers. Although he’s been a bit wild, with five walks allowed, opponents are hitting just .083 against him and he has a 0.79 ERA in 11 1/3 innings.

Other bullpen arms to be aware of for LSU baseball include: 

  • Jr. RHP Garrett Edwards: 1.13 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, .161 BAA, 16 K/3 BB, 16 IP
  • Fr. RHP Chase Shores: 1.88 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, .240 BAA, 10 K/8 BB, 14.1 IP
  • Jr. LHP Riley Cooper: 4.50 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, .226 BAA, 15 K/6 BB, 14 IP
  • Jr. RHP Blake Money: 5.59 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, .182 BAA, 11 K/3 BB, 9.2 IP

As a team, the Tigers rank second in the SEC with a .331 batting average (behind only Florida) and 2.69 ERA (behind only Tennessee), plus have the top fielding percentage (.989) in the conference, so they are excellent in all three phases of the game.

Pitching Matchups — Arkansas vs LSU

Game 1

Arkansas: Jr. LHP Hunter Hollan (2.36 ERA, 24 K/9 BB, 26.2 IP)
LSU: Jr. RHP Paul Skenes (0.59 ERA, 59 K/4 BB, 30.1 IP)

Game 2

Arkansas: R-Jr. RHP Will McEntire (3.71 ERA, 22 K/10 BB, 26.2 IP)
LSU: Jr. RHP Ty Floyd (2.25 ERA, 24 K/7 BB, 20 IP)

Game 3

Arkansas: TBA
LSU: So. RHP Thatcher Hurd (2.57 ERA, 29 K/10 BB, 21 IP)

Dave Van Horn’s gamble worked flawlessly against Auburn last week, as both Hollan and McEntire gave the Razorbacks six strong innings and they got a pair of three-inning saves from left-hander Hagen Smith and right-hander Dylan Carter.

It got even better on Sunday, when Cody Adcock made his first start and threw six scoreless innings after struggling mightily out of the bullpen. If he doesn’t pitch much, or at all, in the first two games, Smith would also be a candidate to start Game 3.

Skenes, as laid out above, has been incredible for the Tigers, while Floyd and Hurd have simply been very good. However, neither of them made it through the fourth inning last week at Texas A&M.

Composite College Baseball Top 25

Unlike football and basketball, which have just the AP and Coaches Polls all year (with football adding the CFP rankings late in the season), college baseball has six major polls.

To get a better feel for how teams stack up, BoAS has combined those rankings into a single top 25 by using a points system in which a No. 1 ranking = 25 points, No. 2 = 24 points and all the way to No. 25 = 1 point. We will update this each week throughout the season…

1. LSUSEC150
2. FloridaSEC+1136.5
3. Wake ForestACC+1134
4. ArkansasSEC+3132.5
5. LouisvilleACC127
6. VanderbiltSEC+2124
7. VirginiaACC+2113
8. UCLAPac-12+3106
9. StanfordPac-12+199
10. South CarolinaSEC+692
11. East CarolinaAAC+191
12. Texas TechBig 12+576
13. TennesseeSEC-1174
14. Miami (Fla.)ACC+666
15. Ole MissSEC-1065
16. Boston CollegeACC+953
17. North CarolinaACC+449
18. Oklahoma StateBig 12-548
19. Texas A&MSEC-543
20. MissouriSECN/A39
21. CampbellBig South+137
22. UC-Santa BarbaraBig West28
23. Florida Gulf CoastASUN+322
24. KentuckySECN/A20
25. IowaBig Ten+79
Receiving votes: North Carolina State (3), UTSA (3), Alabama (2), TCU (2), West Virginia (2), Old Dominion (2), Grand Canyon (1)

MOVED IN: Missouri (20), Florida Gulf Coast (23), Kentucky (24), Iowa (25)
DROPPED OUT: TCU (15), Virginia Tech (t-17), North Carolina State (19), Florida State (24)

Conference Breakdown

  • SEC: 10
  • ACC: 6
  • Big 12: 2
  • Pac-12: 2
  • AAC: 1
  • ASUN: 1
  • Big South: 1
  • Big Ten: 1
  • Big West: 1


More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…

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