The last name may have changed, but Arkansas baseball hasn’t seen any drop-off at second base since Peyton Holt took over for the injured Peyton Stovall.
That continued Thursday night, as the Greenwood native turned in his second straight three-hit game and made a couple of spectacular defensive plays in the Razorbacks’ 8-2 series-opening win over Vanderbilt at Hawkins Field in Nashville, Tenn.
One of those web gems was a diving stop to his left to rob Enrique Bradfield Jr. of a leadoff single in the fourth inning and Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn just so happened to be doing an in-game interview with the SEC Network crew when it all unfolded.
The result was an unfiltered look at the veteran coach’s reaction to his team fulfilling the “next man up” cliche, just as it has throughout a season riddled with injuries.
“I mean, are you kidding me? That’s my backup,” Van Horn said incredulously. “Really? He’s not a backup. Here’s what I tell the guys: You’re not a backup, you’re a future starter.”
Vanderbilt ended up scoring a run that inning, but it could have been far worse with the speedy Bradfield on the base paths.
The very next inning, the Commodores already had one run in and were threatening for more when Holt made yet another great play. He got to a grounder up the middle by RJ Schreck by sliding to his right and then fired to first for the out despite all of his momentum going the other way.
Had the ball gotten through, another run would have scored and Vanderbilt would have been within 7-3, possibly leading to Hagen Smith not getting through the fifth inning.
Described by some as a spark plug for the Razorbacks, Holt went 3 for 4 with a double, a walk and one RBI. He also scored a run and that did not come easy. He got a good jump on a pitch that got by catcher Alan Espinal, which is good because his slide got in just ahead of the would-be tag.
It was his seventh straight start since moving into the lineup as Stovall dealt with a shoulder injury, but first since that injury was revealed to be a torn labrum that requires season-ending surgery.
If he’s feeling any pressure to fill those shoes, Holt certainly hasn’t shown it. He’s hit safely in five of seven games and is 11 for 26 (.423), not to mention his aforementioned defense.
“It sucks how it happened — prayers out to Stovall, hope everything goes good with his recovery — but it’s my spot now,” Holt said. “I’ve just got to do everything I can to play my butt off and help the team win in any way I can, and just keep playing hard.”
Just how well Holt has performance is a bit surprising, even to Van Horn. He did enough to make the team as a JUCO transfer this past fall and spring, but didn’t exactly light the world on fire, hitting just .234 (11 for 47) in the scrimmages attended by media.
However, he put up big numbers over three seasons at Crowder C.C. after beginning his career at Louisiana-Lafayette. Plus he won back-to-back state titles for one of the best football programs in Arkansas — first as Connor Noland’s star receiver in 2017 and then as the starting quarterback in 2018 — so he’s no stranger to the spotlight.
“You never know how it’s going to go offensively for a guy who hasn’t been an everyday starter and then he gets plugged in, but he had a couple of pretty good games throughout the season in midweek games,” Van Horn said. “And I do think he’s a gamer. I think he has a mentality about him that he thinks he can. He’s athletic and he’s strong.”
Making Vandy Pay for Mistakes
Arkansas led from start to finish Thursday night, thanks in large part to gifts from the Commodores.
It started in the first inning, as Vanderbilt botched a pickoff that would have wiped out Tavian Josenberger’s leadoff walk by throwing the ball into the outfield.
Then, with the bases loaded and one out, second baseman RJ Austin booted a tailor-made double play ball off the bat of Caleb Cali and instead of the inning ending, two runs scored without an out being recorded.
Given extra outs to work with, Brady Slavens delivered a two-run home run that doubled the Razorbacks’ lead. That was their only hit in the four-run first inning.
The impact of those defensive miscues was amplified because starter Patrick Reilly struggled to find the strike zone. He issued six walks and hit another batter before being chased after just 1 2/3 innings, meaning half of the Razorbacks he faced reached on free passes.
“I felt like they laid off every borderline pitch and especially early in the count,” Van Horn said. “Got in some really good hitting counts and he was wild. … Just a really good job of our team of like I said taking what they give you and taking advantage of some things in the field. They booted a double play ball and next thing you know we scored four runs.”
A two-out RBI single by Caleb Cali in the second inning gave Reilly his only earned run and led to him being replaced. The Commodores weren’t done making mistakes, though.
Another error — this time a bad throw by shortstop Jonathan Vastine — led to another two runs scoring in the fourth. Had Austin not booted another ground ball in the seventh, the inning would have ended before Peyton Holt scored on a wild pitch.
The four errors by Vanderbilt, which came in with the SEC’s best fielding percentage in conference play at .986, were a season high.
“That is not us, trust me,” Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin said. “We have got to flush that quick. We have just got to get into some kind of positive activity where they can start feeling better about themselves. They are young kids and they are pressing.
“They are human beings. They don’t want to play like that. That is uncharacteristic of how they played all year. That’s not representative of Vanderbilt and who they are.”
A Different Opening 1-2 Punch
For a moment Thursday night, it looked like Hagen Smith might match teammate Hunter Hollan with a complete game. With the help of a double play, the left-hander faced the minimum through three innings and had thrown just 33 pitches.
However, he ran into through in the fourth and fifth, cutting his outing well short of nine innings.
It was a two-out RBI single by Parker Noland — set up by a two-out walk — that got Vanderbilt on the board in the fourth and then Enrique Bradfield Jr. drove in a run in the fifth. After breezing through the first three, Smith needed 51 pitches to get through the next two.
He was charged with two earned runs on five hits and two walks while striking out seven in five innings.
“Just didn’t command the ball quite as well in those two innings,” Van Horn said. “It led to pitching behind in the count, then you’re going to give up some hits and that’s kind of what I saw. But I really liked his demeanor on the mound. I felt like he wasn’t just trying to strike people out — he was trying to get people out. That’s how you stay in the game longer.”
Smith might not have gotten through that last inning had Peyton Holt not made his aforementioned web gems, as the second one came on his 84th and final pitch.
That’s a relatively low pitch count for the sophomore, as he’d thrown at least 94 in each of his last three starts, but Van Horn didn’t want to push it, especially given the 7-2 score at the time.
“We could have sent him out for one more, but we just felt like with the week being short, let’s get him out,” Van Horn said. “We’re winning, we have confidence in Will, or if we would have gone to whoever, we just felt like it was time to get him.”
Interestingly, the first pitcher Arkansas turned to out of the bullpen was Will McEntire, who opened the season as a starter, but recently began piggybacking Brady Tygart’s starts in Game 2 of the series.
It was a different recipe than what the Razorbacks have been using this year. When Hollan started Game 1, Smith was used in long relief to close it out. When Smith shifted back to starting, freshman closer Gage Wood assumed that role.
“The plan was to win the game,” Van Horn said. “We had four innings to go. We didn’t feel like we needed to bring Gage in right there and we went with Will.”
McEntire delivered, throwing four scoreless innings to earn his second save of the season — and the 17th overall by the Razorbacks, which leads the SEC. He allowed only two base runners and both of them came in the eighth inning, but he stranded them on second and third with back-to-back strikeouts of Chris Maldonado and Noland.
Even though he threw 53 pitches, Van Horn didn’t completely rule him out for the rest of the weekend, saying there’s an “80% chance he’s not going to pitch again” vs. Vanderbilt.
As a tandem, Smith and McEntire held the Commodores to just six hits in 32 at bats (.188) and only nine total base runners.
“Hagen Smith is real,” Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin said. “That’s a really good arm, a really competitive kid. McEntire is an executor. His breaking ball is real, too. The kid is tough, you’ve kinda got to wait him out.”
Assessing Jared Wegner’s Return
For the first time since breaking his thumb sliding into third base against Little Rock on April 11, Jared Wegner was in the starting lineup against Vanderbilt.
The Creighton transfer missed 18 of the previous 19 games entirely, with his only action being as a one-inning defensive replacement two games after his original injury, so Thursday marked his first live at bats in more than a month.
He went 0 for 3 with a strikeout, but did get plunked twice — including on the first pitch he saw. Both times he came around to score. Wegner nearly had an RBI hit in the second inning, but third baseman Davis Diaz snagged his sharply hit grounder to rob him.
“It’s a tough situation when you haven’t had live at-bats in a real game and haven’t played in a month plus and you’re facing good pitching, good arms,” Van Horn said. “He’s a threat. That ball he hit that the third baseman fielded was amazing.
“That ball was hit like 117-118 mph is what I was told, which is incredible. It’s amazing the third baseman just threw his glove down there and found it. If he doesn’t field that ball, who knows how many runs we would’ve scored.”
Even though he went hitless, Wegner’s return to the lineup — batting third and starting in left field — was a welcome sight for the Razorbacks. Even with Thursday’s performance included, he’s slashing .342/.483/.719 with 12 home runs and 44 RBIs in 33 starts this year.
“It’s awesome to have him back in the middle of the lineup,” teammate Peyton Holt said. “It was kind of scary seeing him get hit, especially close to the hand first AB. What a welcome back to the lineup.”
Updating the SEC Baseball Title Race
After taking care of business itself, Arkansas nearly clinched the SEC West title on Thursday, only for LSU to stay alive by eking out a 12-inning win at Georgia.
The Bulldogs homered twice in the bottom of the ninth to force extras and then escaped a bases-loaded jam in the 10th, but never could scratch out another run. Back-to-back homers by LSU were the difference.
In the other game that matters in the SEC race, Florida and Kentucky were tied 2-2 through five innings before the Gators used a five-run sixth on their way to a 10-3 victory.
That means Arkansas’ lead for both the overall and division title remained the same — one game over Florida and 1.5 games over LSU.
All the Razorbacks need to win the division is either a win over Vanderbilt or an LSU loss to Georgia on Friday or Saturday.
Arkansas would clinch at least a share of the overall SEC title win a win or a Florida loss to Kentucky, as well, and would win it outright if both things happen.
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks can clinch the series with a win in Game 2 of the Arkansas vs Vanderbilt series, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. CT Friday. Like the opener, it will be nationally televised on SEC Network.
Although he hasn’t been officially named the starter, right-hander Brady Tygart (2.92 ERA, 12 1/3 IP) is expected to get the nod for Arkansas. It will be his fourth career start, all of which have come since returning from a strained UCL.
Those starts have totaled only six innings, as the Razorbacks have brought him along slowly, but the sophomore has been dominant. He’s given up just one hit and four total base runners while not allowing a single run. If all goes well, Tygart’s pitch count should tick up to the 55-60 range after being at 40 last week.
Vanderbilt will counter with the only healthy member of its usual starting rotation, left-hander Devin Futrell. Although he has an impressive 2.93 ERA, he is more of a pitch-to-contact guy with only 55 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings this season. Opponents are hitting just .207 against him.
The Razorbacks haven’t won a series at Vanderbilt since taking two of three in 2010. However, they have been to Nashville just twice since then — a sweep in 2015 and a series loss in 2019.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- This is just the fourth time Arkansas baseball has reached 20 SEC wins since joining the conference in 1992. “Twenty in this league is tough, really tough to get to,” Van Horn said. “That’s a big number. … At first, you just try to get to 15. You get to 15, you feel like you’ve got a chance to be in a Regional. Anything after that might lead to having a chance to win something.”
- Making that accomplishment even more incredible is that it’s the third time the Razorbacks have hit that milestone in the last four seasons, not including the pandemic-altered 2020 campaign. Their single-season record is 22, which they set in 1999 and matched in 2021 — and could match again with a sweep of the Commodores.
- On the flip side, this was just the second SEC home loss of the season for Vanderbilt, which had been 11-1 in conference games at Hawkins Field. The Commodores’ only other loss was to South Carolina, but they bounced back to win the next two games and clinch the series.
- Brady Slavens didn’t waste any time extending his on-base streak to 18 games and hitting streak to eight games, smacking a two-run home run in the first inning. Over the last eight games, he’s slashing .367/.424/.867 with four long balls. “I feel like he’s swinging the bat as well as he has all year right now,” Van Horn said. “If you make a mistake, he’s taking advantage of it and hitting the ball out of the park or hitting the ball the other way. He hit two balls on the nose today and he just missed another one tonight.”
- That first-inning swing also gave Slavens 39 career home runs and 161 career RBIs during his three seasons with the Razorbacks. He is now tied with Brian Kirby for sixth on the UA career home runs list and alone in 10th place on the career RBIs list.
- On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jace Bohrofen went 0 for 5 and is now just 1 for 16 over the last four games. “He’s getting jammed a little bit,” Van Horn said. “He’s had a few bad breaks, in my opinion, by some calls. The difference between a ball and a strike in a 1-1 count. If it’s called a strike, you’re down 1-2, or you’re ahead 2-1.”
- A bright spot for Vanderbilt was the performance of reliever Sam Hliboki. The right-hander was charged with three runs, but only one was earned, and he struck out seven in 5 1/3 innings. Considering Arkansas chased their starter in the second, he was critical to preserving the Commodores’ bullpen for the rest of the weekend.
Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Highlights (Game 1)
Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Box Score (Game 1)
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