Even though it didn’t win Saturday afternoon, Arkansas baseball still won an SEC title.
A loss by LSU clinched them a division title and at least a share of the overall championship, but the Razorbacks ended up sharing the latter with Florida thanks to dropping their rubber match at Vanderbilt, losing 7-6 at Hawkins Field in Nashville, Tenn.
The result was conflicting feelings by Arkansas baseball head coach Dave Van Horn, who has now won three regular-season SEC titles since taking over the program in 2003. The others were in 2004 and 2021.
“Just really excited to be SEC champs,” Van Horn said. “It’s so hard to do. … So it’s kind of mixed emotions right now. Frustrated we lost the game, felt like we could have won it. But it’s not like we weren’t trying to win it.”
Van Horn said they found out in the middle innings that Georgia managed to salvage Game 3 against LSU, so they tweaked how they handled the pitching staff down the stretch and it backfired.
Even so, the Razorbacks had their chances.
On two separate occasions, they had two runners on with no outs and failed to score despite having the top or heart of the order coming up. The latter of those was in the eighth inning and Tavian Josenberger failed to get a bunt down that would have turned Kendall Diggs’ ensuing fly out into a sacrifice.
They also had the tying run in scoring position in the seventh, but the hot-hitting Peyton Holt went down swinging. It was his first strikeout since May 5, snapping a stretch of 33 straight plate appearances without one.
Arkansas also got the tying run on base with one out in the ninth, but Brady Slavens — who has also been on fire offensively — grounded into a double play to end the game. It wasn’t quite like blowing a six-run lead, but it did feel like the Razorbacks left runs on the table that could have swung the result.
Luckily for them, though, the Razorbacks had done enough earlier in the season to put themselves in position to still win the conference, thanks in large part to sweeps of Auburn, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. That lessened the sting of back-to-back losses.
“The week before SEC play, we talked about the importance of when you get a chance to win a game, win it,” Van Horn said. “Win that Sunday game when you’ve got a chance to sweep.”
Of course, not winning either of those last two games cost Arkansas an outright championship, which might provide the team — much like last year — with motivation heading into the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s amazing to be able to say you’re an SEC champ,” pitcher Will McEntire said. “We fought hard all season long, but I think it’s kind of a good thing. I think this might leave a salty taste in our mouth and have us coming out fired up for the postseason.”
Hogs Discover New Weapon in Loss
Even in Week 14 of the season, Dave Van Horn is still learning things about his team and he might have stumbled across a new weapon Saturday despite the loss.
Just two days after throwing four shutout innings to cap a series-opening win, right-hander Will McEntire was back on the mound Saturday and looked good.
The redshirt junior gave up a single and a walk, but the hit was wiped out when Parker Rowland gunned down a potential base stealer. Despite having thrown 85 pitches over his two outings, he likely could have stayed in even longer than the 2 1/3 scoreless innings he gave Arkansas in this game.
“We scored a few runs, took the lead by two, and we thought we were going to be safe and get him out,” Van Horn said. “I think if we would have left him in, he probably could have gone another couple innings, but we just didn’t want to chance it.”
McEntire wasn’t thrilled about coming out when he did, but he understood the situation. He also likes the idea of being able to pitch twice in one weekend. In fact, he told reporters that he felt like he was throwing his fastball harder than he did his first time out.
“I felt good today after pitching on Thursday,” McEntire said. “I enjoyed it and I think I felt better today than I did on Thursday, so I think I can do that.”
On a pitching staff that’s seen three major pieces go down with season-ending injuries, roles have constantly changed throughout the year.
Having someone with McEntire’s experience and, when he’s on, ability to eat up innings available to pitch twice would be huge as Arkansas enters the postseason.
“I don’t think he has any problem with it at all,” Van Horn said. “He’s in good shape right now. He’s feeling it. He’s got a good feel for that cutter. He can throw it any time, and it’s moving and diving. I think he’s got the stamina to do it.”
Between the two outings, McEntire allowed only four base runners (two hits, one walk, one HBP) in 6 1/3 scoreless innings while striking out eight.
Since moving to the bullpen, his ERA has fallen from 5.88 to 5.05.
Gage Wood’s Struggles
On the opposite end of the spectrum, freshman Gage Wood also made two appearances this weekend, but things didn’t go nearly as well for him.
The Razorbacks’ closer was on the mound for the start of Friday’s collapse and then wasn’t super sharp in his outing Saturday, albeit better than the day before.
Before getting back-to-back outs to end the sixth inning, Wood walked Davis Diaz on four pitches and was called for a balk that scored Vanderbilt’s seventh and final run of the game, which proved to be the difference. Only five of his 14 pitches were strikes.
“I was telling Gage — he had a rough outing yesterday and he was mad about it — I just said, ‘You have to brush it off,’” teammate Will McEntire said. “You’re not going to have it every time and he’s been good for us all season, so you might expect a bad one out of him since he’s a freshman, but I know every time he goes out there, I’m confident in him. So he just needs to brush it off and be ready for the next time.”
Considering he retired only one of the six batters he faced and gave up five earned runs in Game 2, it brought to mind Brady Tygart’s struggles about this time last year.
Despite being one of the best closers in the country in 2022, Tygart was almost a non-factor during Arkansas’ run to the College World Series semifinals because he seemingly hit the freshman wall.
One key difference, though, is that Tygart regularly pitched twice on the weekend, doing so five times in 10 SEC series. This weekend was just the second time in SEC play that Wood has made multiple appearances, with the only other one being in late-March/early-April against Alabama.
“I don’t know why he would have hit the wall,” Van Horn said. “The last two weeks, I think we’ve only thrown him once — maybe three weeks. He hasn’t thrown that much. Today, kind of the same as yesterday — all over the place, not throwing as hard as normal. It looked like nerves to me.”
Short Stint for Hunter Hollan
Having thrown 113 pitches in a complete game his last time out and one less day of rest before pitching again, Hunter Hollan was never going to work deep into Saturday’s game. In fact, Dave Van Horn said he might not have pitched at all had Arkansas wrapped up the SEC title in Game 2.
Sure enough, the left-hander turned in his shortest outing of the year in terms of innings (2 2/3) and pitches thrown (55). Vanderbilt jumped on him for four earned runs on eight hits, three of which went for extra bases.
However, Van Horn didn’t sound too alarmed by the outing and said his stuff looked pretty good, but the Commodores just caught some breaks.
“They nickeled and dimed him pretty good,” Van Horn said. “You talk about bloops and cap balls… He made good pitches and they just found holes. You’re kind of going, ‘Wow.’ He was a little frustrated with it.”
Assessing Jared Wegner’s Return
After missing more than a month with a broken thumb, Jared Wegner made his much anticipated return to the lineup this weekend.
While he played solid defense in left field, it was a bit of a struggle at the plate, as he went just 1 for 11 with five strikeouts in the three games against Vanderbilt.
That said, the one hit was a double off the top of the wall in left-center, barely staying in the park, and he drew four free passes (two walks, two HBPs), which helped him score four runs. One of his outs Thursday night came on a sharp grounder with an incredible 117-118 mph exit velocity that the third baseman somehow managed to snag.
“Tough weekend for him to open back up after being off for a month,” Van Horn said. “He’s facing arms that are 95, 96, 97 (mph) from the right side and lefties that are moving it around pretty good.”
As he gets his timing back and continues to get more comfortable in his return to the lineup, there’s reason to believe Wegner will make a jump and get back to the level he was playing when he got hurt.
In fact, that’s what Van Horn said he thinks will happen after he gets a couple more days off ahead of the SEC Tournament. The Razorbacks don’t plan to let him swing the bat much in the coming days.
“I think his swing got better every day. Even in pregame, I could see it. I like to stand out in center field behind second base and watch the swings, and his swing looked a lot better today than it did yesterday in pregame. He said it’s less sore than it was a few days ago.
John Bolton Injury Update
The Razorbacks were without starting shortstop John Bolton on Saturday after he left the previous game with an ankle injury suffered when colliding with teammate Peyton Holt in shallow center.
It was just the third SEC game he’s missed all year, as he’s been Arkansas’ primary shortstop for most of 2023 despite significant struggles at the plate.
X-rays didn’t reveal any structural damage, so they’re calling it an ankle sprain for the time being and the hope is that he’ll be back for the NCAA Tournament, even if that means missing the SEC Tournament.
“As of now I’d say he’s definitely not playing on Wednesday (or) Thursday, maybe not at all,” Van Horn said. “He should be ready in a while, though — a week or so. We’ll see. He kept it iced off and on today during the game and kept it elevated in the dugout sitting on the bench. They’re doing everything they can to accelerate that and get that right.”
In his place, Harold Coll got the star. The former top-100 recruit officially went 0 for 2 at the plate, but he drove in a run with a sacrifice fly his first time up and was also hit by a pitch.
“He played really good today,” Van Horn said. “I thought he had some good at bats and that was a big sac fly he had for us today. He works hard every day, takes his ground balls, does his work. I’m good with him.”
**Check back later for more tidbits and takeaways from the Arkansas vs Vanderbilt series.**
The Razorbacks tied Florida atop the SEC standings with a 20-10 conference record, but will be the 2 seed at next week’s SEC Tournament.
Because they didn’t play each other, the tiebreaker was determined by record against their highest-seeded common opponent, which was 4 seed Vanderbilt. The Gators swept the Commodores, while Arkansas just lost two of three against them.
As a top-4 seed, Arkansas received a bye into the double-elimination portion of the tournament and won’t play until the second game Wednesday, with first pitch tentatively scheduled for 1 p.m. CT.
The Razorbacks’ first opponent will be either 7 seed Tennessee or 10 seed Texas A&M, who play a single-elimination game in that same time slot Tuesday. They swept both teams at home last month.
The other three teams on Arkansas’ side of the bracket are 3 seed LSU, 6 seed South Carolina and 11 seed Georgia.
“As far as the games, we’re going to try to win them, but definitely going to mix it up a little bit,” Van Horn said. “We don’t know who we’re going pitch yet. … I’m going to spread it out as best I can. We’re not going to overdo it with anybody and we’re going to try to win as many as we can and get ready for a regional.”
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- This is Arkansas baseball’s fourth regular-season SEC championship since joining the league in 1992. In addition to the three won under Dave Van Horn, the Razorbacks also captured the crown under Norm DeBriyn in 1999.
- Peyton Holt notched his fifth straight multi-hit game by going 2 for 4 with an RBI. Over the final two weekends of the regular season, he slashed .619/.680/.952. “Peyton Holt was huge for our offense this weekend,” Van Horn said. “He looked more like a guy that should be hitting in the 3-hole, and that may happen.”
- Outside of Holt, no current Arkansas player is swinging the bat than Brady Slavens, who went 3 for 5 to extend his hitting streak to 10 games and on-base streak to 20 games. During that hitting streak, his batting average has climbed 34 points to .303. “I feel pretty good,” Slavens said. “Season comes in waves. You’ve got to ride the wave when you’re doing well, and fight against it when you’re not. So feeling pretty good.”
Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Box Score (Game 3)
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