FAYETTEVILLE — Considering he played about six months straight between last season’s deep postseason run and summer ball, Dave Van Horn said the plan for Peyton Stovall this fall was to “pace him a little bit.”
The heralded Louisiana product apparently didn’t get the memo. Instead, he seems to have picked up right where he left off. After ending his freshman season scorching hot, Stovall homered in each of the Razorbacks’ first two intrasquad scrimmages of the fall and has a team-high six RBIs so far.
“He’s probably a little bit tired, (being a) freshman that played almost every game last year,” Van Horn told reporters Wednesday morning. “Then he went out to summer ball, traveled, played and had some good days and some okay days in an incredible league. I mean, you’re seeing 93-95 (mph) everyday in the Cape. It’s hard to hit in that league, especially when you’re coming off your freshman year.”
Rather than looking like a guy who had just played 76 total games — 52 at Arkansas and 24 in the Cape Cod League — in his first year at the college level, he looked like the projected first-round pick most expected to see all of last season.
On the first official day of fall ball, Stovall welcomed freshman Gage Wood to the SEC by turning on a pitch with the bases loaded for a grand slam that broke a 4-4 tie and lifted his Gray squad to an 8-4 win in five and a half innings Thursday afternoon.
It was a 395-foot blast that hit the top of the Hunt Center beyond Baum-Walker Stadium’s right field fence. According to the UA’s TrackMan system, the ball left the bat at 102 mph and an angle of 23 degrees.
The next day, Stovall got ahold of a Nick Moten pitch high in the zone and sent it 381 feet over the right field fence in front of the scoreboard for a two-run homer that capped the Gray squad’s scoring in a dominant 9-3 five-inning win. It wasn’t hit quite as hard as his first long ball, but it still had a 100 mph exit velocity and 23-degree launch angle.
Perhaps his most impressive hit on the Razorbacks’ first weekend back in action, though, came in the first inning Friday afternoon.
Facing left-hander Zack Morris, who is vying for a spot in Arkansas’ starting rotation in 2023, Stovall hit a solid line drive to the gap in right-center that hit the wall on one hop for a stand-up double. One of the Razorbacks’ top bullpen arms last season, Morris faced 64 lefties and allowed only one extra-base hit, so the competition was a bit different than on his two home runs.
Even though he was hitless in the final two games against Ole Miss, Stovall was arguably the hottest hitter on the team in the postseason. Entering the NCAA Tournament hitting just .252, he raised his batting average a whopping 43 points by going 21 for 49 (.429) during Arkansas’ run to the College World Series semifinals.
Then, barely a week after the Razorbacks were eliminated, Stovall was in the Cape Cod League. He ended up slashing .267/.396/.372 in 24 games for the Falmouth Commodores.
Stovall may not have lived up to the lofty expectations that followed him to Fayetteville when he likely turned down a seven-figure signing bonus to play college ball, hitting .295/.373/.425 with six home runs and 31 RBIs, but the way he ended the season and how he’s started fall ball indicate he could be in store for a huge sophomore campaign.
Other Home Runs in First 2 Scrimmages
A key returning contributor off the bench, Kendall Diggs got the fall started with a bang. In just the second at bat of Thursday’s scrimmage, the sophomore crushed a pitch from Will McEntire that caught a little too much of the plate.
It was the only home run from the two days that didn’t have TrackMan data, but it was easily the biggest of the five total bombs, clearing the Hunt Center in right field.
While he’ll probably always be remembered for his walk-off home run against Ole Miss last season, Diggs has struggled to be consistent at the plate, He typically does a good job of working the count and putting together solid at bats, but he ended up hitting a team-low .197 (12 for 61) as a freshman and the home run was hit lone hit in six at bats across the two scrimmages.
The guy Van Horn said was hitting the ball harder than anybody else in workouts leading up to fall ball was Jared Wegner, the transfer from Creighton. His performance in his first couple of scrimmages in an Arkansas uniform backed up that praise.
In Thursday’s scrimmage, he deposited a fastball from Matthew Magre over the fence in left-center. It was a 407-foot blast that scored three and had a 106 mph exit velocity and 21-degree launch angle.
Even when he made outs, Wegner usually did so with solid contact. He hit a line drive later in Thursday’s scrimmage that was caught in center. On Friday, he nearly took off freshman Ben Bybee’s head with an RBI single up the middle.
“Coming in, it’s just confidence,” Wegner said. “Walking in, you move conferences or whatever and you’re a little nervous about who the personnel is going to be, especially with all the new guys. I think the first day I hit well and then from there, just kept it going, keep the confidence up.”
The only other long ball on either day was hit by freshman Mason Neville in Friday’s scrimmage. Immediately after Wegner’s single, the Las Vegas native followed with a 391-foot homer that left the bat at 100 mph and 24 degrees. It cleared the right field wall in front of the scoreboard.
That hit drove in two runs for Neville, as did his triple in Thursday’s scrimmage. His four RBIs are tied with Wegner for the second most on the team behind Stovall.
Assessing the Arkansas Baseball Pitching Staff
During his conversation with the media last Wednesday, Dave Van Horn mentioned four pitchers who really stood out to him when it came to being potential starters: left-handers Hagen Smith and Zack Morris and right-handers Will McEntire and Brady Tygart.
Not surprisingly, those were the four pitchers tabbed to start the two scrimmages, with Smith and McEntire getting the nod Thursday before Morris and Tygart got the start Friday. They, like the rest of the pitchers, each got one inning of work as they begin the slow build up to the 2023 season.
Of that group, Smith was the most impressive. He struck out Hunter Grimes and then retired Peyton Stovall and Jared Wegner on a fly out and ground out, giving him a perfect inning.
Morris and Tygart each allowed a double in their start — to Stovall and Caleb Cali, respectively — but otherwise looked like you’d expect. Morris, more of a pitch-to-contact pitcher, induced three ground balls, while Tygart, who has elite swing-and-miss stuff, struck out Isaac Webb and Kendall Diggs for two of his three outs.
Despite their contrasting styles and the fact that they throw with opposite arms, Morris and Tygart are similar in that they were primarily used out of the bullpen in 2022. Morris was a key middle reliever who came on strong down the stretch and made his lone two starts in the postseason, which is something he’s hoping to carry over into 2023.
“Starting has always been my thing,” Morris said. “Starting for the Hogs is just something I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t really care what my role is, whether it’s closing or in relief or starting. Preferably, I’d love to start, but I just want to help these guys win.”
Tygart was a dominant closer for the Razorbacks for much of last season before hitting the freshman wall and struggling at the end. Van Horn always mentioned him as a future starter and he’s beginning that transition this fall.
“I feel like I executed my plan how I wanted to,” Tygart said of his start. “I was starting to throw a little bit different pitches than I was last year and I was executing them how I wanted to. … Just trying to mix it more, mix it and throw every one of my pitches for a strike rather than just one pitch.”
The only starter to allow a run was McEntire, who hung the pitch that Diggs crushed over the Hunt Center. He also gave up a single to Cali and moved him to second on a wild pitch, but that was it. He had a couple of strikeouts and induced a pop up to end the frame.
In addition to Smith, five other Razorbacks had perfect three up, three down innings: left-hander Hunter Hollan and right-handers Jaxon Wiggins, Cody Adcock, Austin Ledbetter and Dylan Carter. All five of those pitchers could be contributors for Arkansas this season.
Wiggins is the most recognizable name considering he was in the starting rotation much of 2022, while Ledbetter showed glimpses of his potential as a freshman, including 2 2/3 scoreless innings in Omaha.
Hollan and Adcock transferred in from junior colleges this offseason, with Hollan being the ace for JUCO powerhouse San Jacinto J.C. and Adcock being a DI bounce-back who began his career at Ole Miss. Carter was a JUCO transfer last offseason who redshirted and then dominated the Northwoods League this summer with a 2.93 ERA.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, several young pitchers really struggled with their command, with four failing to get three outs.
Freshman right-hander Gage Wood, the Batesville native, walked the first three batters he faced before giving up the Stovall grand slam, which ended his day before recording an out. Another freshman, right-hander Ben Bybee, wasn’t helped by his defense, but was wild with a walk and three wild pitches and hit hard, giving up the Neville homer, in 1/3 of an inning.
Second-year pitchers Matthew Magre and Nick Moten each gave up four runs in 1/3 of an inning, too. Moten, a righty who figured to contribute as a freshman last year before having a setback with an illness, had a walk and two wild pitches, while Magre, a lefty, had three walks and a wild pitch. They each also allowed a home run.
Right-hander Jake Faherty, a another inexperienced second-year guy, got through a full inning, but allowed three runs and had a HBP, walk and wild pitch. He’s a flame-thrower who can approach triple digits, but command is an issue.
The 21 pitchers who threw in the two scrimmages combined for an 11.00 ERA and 2.06 WHIP, but excluding those five pitchers, the numbers improve dramatically. The other 16 guys had a 1.69 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while allowing opponents to hit just .186.
Assessing the Arkansas Baseball Defense
There were two plays that could be considered web gems in the pair of scrimmages. The first came when Isaac Webb made a leaping grab at the wall in left to rob Harold Coll of extra bases. Coll got his revenge the next day when he stabbed a sharp grounder by Jayson Jones at shortstop, spun and fired a strike to first that just beat the freshman for the out.
That said, neither of those guys was perfect in the field. Webb, a JUCO transfer who was a middle infielder at East Oklahoma State C.C., nearly misplayed a sinking line drive by Stovall, but recovered in time to catch it. Coll, a former top-100 recruit and transfer from JUCO powerhouse San Jacinto J.C., actually committed an error when he threw high to first.
Star freshman Mason Neville had a great two days at the plate, but didn’t always look particularly smooth in center. He initially misread a line drive by Coll before recovering and catching it and also looked like he didn’t get a great read on another line drive by Reese Robinett. He did, however, cover quite a bit of ground to catch a line drive by Jude Putz.
Neville, who turned down an opportunity to go pro straight out of high school, is trying to continue the Razorbacks’ tradition of great center fielders — Andrew Benintendi, Dominic Fletcher and Christian Franklin, to name a few — but is competing with JUCO transfer Hunter Grimes and, when he’s healthy, Kansas transfer Tavian Josenberger for the starting job.
“That’s the goal, but the team is loaded with competition,” Neville said. “There are some previous center fielders that were legit and are playing in the big leagues now, but honestly all I can do is play my game and just stick to my game and see what happens. I’m confident in myself and my abilities, so it’s just a matter of time until I prove it.”
Behind the plate, Oklahoma transfer Hudson Polk started at catcher in both scrimmages, while JUCO transfer Parker Rowland got the other starting nod Thursday and New Mexico State transfer Cal Kilgore started Friday.
None of them stood out above the others defensively. Two players were caught stealing, but not because of great throws by the catcher. Caleb Cali was thrown out by Rowland on Thursday because he over-slid the base, while Rowland was thrown out trying to take a base on a pitch in the dirt against Kilgore, but he looked like he was running in mud.
Kilgore also threw wide to second on a stolen base attempt that moved the runner to third and allowed the only unofficial passed ball, but there were a handful of wild pitches that each of the catchers likely could have blocked and kept in front of them.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- Brady Slavens did not participate in either scrimmage. He is recovering from offseason surgery. Van Horn said he might eventually get to play defense at first base, but he won’t throw or hit.
- Tavian Josenberger, the transfer from Kansas, only played as a designated runner for Jace Bohrofen. Josenberger is dealing with lingering back issues, while Bohrofen is dealing with knee issues.
- The only other position player who didn’t participate was JUCO transfer Tyson Fourkiller, who is recovering from offseason surgery to repair a broken foot that he played through most of last season.
- The only pitcher on the roster who did not pitch was right-hander Cooper Dossett, the top-ranked pitcher in Arkansas’ 2022 signing class who made it to campus. The Springdale Har-Ber product is not known to have any injury.
Unofficial Box Scores
Unofficial Cumulative Fall Scrimmage Stats
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