Even an “SOS” to Frank Thomas Might Not Have Saved Auburn vs Arkansas Standouts in Game 1

Frank Thomas, Hagen Smith, Arkansas baseball, Auburn baseball, Arkansas vs Auburn
photo credit: SEC Network / Arkansas Athletics

Everyone wants to see the Hagen Smith show — and the Arkansas ace didn’t disappoint Thursday night.

Pitching in front of three Auburn baseball legends and undoubtedly numerous scouts, the left-hander threw six shutout innings to help the No. 1 Razorbacks open their series against No. 23 Tigers with a 1-0 road win.

Former big leaguers Frank Thomas, who’s enshrined in Cooperstown, and Tim Hudson were among the crowd of 4,410 at Plainsman Park for yet another brilliant start by Smith. Throw in Gregg Olson, who was in the booth as the color analyst for the SEC Network broadcast, and three of the four Auburn players whose jersey has been retired witnessed it.

With Smith on the mound, perhaps the Tigers’ only hope of doing something offensively was if Thomas or the player who wore that fourth retired jersey — Bo Jackson — were in the lineup.

Alas, they were not and the current Auburn team mustered just three hits and three free passes (two walks, one HBP) while striking out 12 times as Smith pitched out of a couple of jams in his six innings of work.

“Some of it was experience,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said about Smith’s ability to work out of trouble. “Really no panic, and really making some pitches. I mean, bottom line, making pitches with really good stuff.”

The Tigers’ best opportunity against him was the result of an error by the Razorbacks, as Ross Lovich let a fly ball pop out of his glove in the sixth inning to put runners on second and third.

Smith bounced back with a strikeout that should have ended the inning, but instead followed it up with a four-pitch walk to load the bases. He got out of the jam by getting Mason Maners to ground out to first.

Even though Smith prevented Auburn from scoring, the error still hurt because it made him throw an extra nine pitches. Instead of getting through the sixth on just 78 pitches, he was at 87 and Van Horn opted to turn to his bullpen rather than send his ace back out for the seventh.

“It would have been two outs with a runner on first (and) the way the game was going, probably would have been in the dugout in five pitches or less,” Van Horn said. “We probably would have sent him back out for the seventh, but after that he had to fight. They had a little momentum. … That was probably really tough for them in that dugout when he got them out.”

Prior to that, Auburn got a walk and a single to start the fourth and then pulled off a double-steal with one out. Smith locked in and got back-to-back strikeouts of Chris Stanfield and Maners, after which he showed a lot of emotion as he came off the field.

Other than that, it was smooth sailing. He benefitted from a double play in the third and worked around a one-out single in the first. It ended up being great, but that first inning was almost much tougher on Smith.

The Bullard, Texas, native fell behind Cooper Weiss 3-0 to start the game before throwing 10 consecutive strikes. One of those was the one-out single by Ike Irish, but the other nine strikes helped him notch three strikeouts.

“I just kind of got out of whack mechanically,” Smith said. “In the moment, I figured out what I was doing. I was just getting a little on the side of the ball. Trying to get on top of it. Going 3-0 kind of helped out.”

It was Smith’s fourth outing with double-digit strikeouts this year and helped improve his already video game-like numbers. He now has a 1.24 ERA and 0.72 WHIP with a whopping 62 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 29 innings. Opponents are hitting just .116 against him and he’s 4-0.

That kind of production is why Baseball America’s first in-season mock draft has him going fifth overall in this summer’s MLB Draft. If that happens, then Thomas would get to cheer for the man he watched mow down his alma mater because the White Sox — with whom he played 16 of his 19 seasons during a Hall of Fame career — own that pick.

Bullpen Perfection

Even though it was just a 1-0 score when Hagen Smith left the game, the Razorbacks were never really in danger of losing because their bullpen was perfect. Literally.

Right-handers Will McEntire and Gabe Gaeckle combined to retire the last nine Auburn hitters in order. None of them even got a ball into the outfield, as those nine outs came on five strikeouts and four ground outs.

The closest the Tigers came to a hit over that span was a grounder up the first base line by Javon Hernandez that Ben McLaughlin snagged and then tossed to McEntire covering first for the final out of the seventh inning.

“I think about the play that McLaughlin made with two outs when the guy slapped the ball down the first base line,” Van Horn said. “Made a diving play and hit a moving target throwing off his back side, so that was pretty good.”

McEntire needed only 22 pitches to retire the six batters he faced, striking out half of them and getting a pair of ground outs to second for the two other outs. He will be available to pitch again this weekend, if needed.

That’s also the case for Gaeckle, who needed only 14 pitches to earn his SEC-leading fifth save of the season. He could “maybe” pitch tomorrow, but “for sure” on Saturday.

“He’s not done,” Van Horn said. “He only threw 14 pitches. It was a stressful situation, but he didn’t have runners on base and it wasn’t tough out there as far as on him physically. It’s not like he had to throw a lot of pitches.”

They helped Arkansas put the finishing touches on a third shutout during its 4-0 start to conference play. As a staff, the Razorbacks have allowed only one run during that stretch for a ridiculous 0.25 ERA. It also improved their season ERA — a stat in which they already led the nation — to an impressive 2.23.

Opponents are now hitting just .179 against Arkansas pitching, including a minuscule .097 in SEC play.

Offensive Woes Flare Up Again

As good as Hagen Smith and the bullpen were, the concerns surrounding Arkansas’ offense are just as notable coming out of Thursday’s game.

The Razorbacks managed only six hits as a team and went 1 for 15 (.067) with runners on base, including 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position. They left eight men on base and failed to score on any of the five times their leadoff man reached.

“I think it was just a matter of the other team’s pitchers making some really good pitches in some tough situations,” Van Horn said. “We swung through a couple of pitches. Just missed a couple of pitches. Hit fly balls. You could tell our hitters were frustrated. They felt like they were on a couple of pitches, but give Auburn’s pitching staff credit. They didn’t throw the ball in the middle of the plate much at all, and they got ahead in the count.”

Even when Arkansas scored its lone run, it left more on the table.

Peyton Stovall led off the game by getting hit by a pitch and then, in a full count, Kendall Diggs swung at a pitch out of the zone on an apparent hit-and-run. Instead of taking ball four to put runners on first and second with no outs, he whiffed and Stovall was caught stealing.

That immediately came back to haunt the Razorbacks because Wehiwa Aloy followed with an opposite-field home run. Instead of a three-run bomb with no outs, it was a solo shot with two outs.

“He did a tremendous job with the fastball, let it get deep and just hammered it,” Van Horn said. “We felt like it was out right when it left the bat, and he’s been swinging the bat extremely well in batting practice. He hit two or three balls out of the park in batting practice to right center, and that ball was more dead right.”

In the third inning, Arkansas loaded the bases with one out and Ben McLaughlin hit a shallow fly ball to right. It hung in the air long enough for Auburn right fielder Bobby Peirce to position himself where he could catch it on the move and fire home.

It was a beauty, too. The ball got all the way to catcher Ike Irish in the air and he applied the tag to the speedy Ty Wilmsmeyer, who tagged up and tried to turn it into a sacrifice fly.

“He’s probably got if not the best arm of all right fielders in our league, one of the top,” Van Horn said. “He’s been there forever, seems like he’s been here for five, six years. I think he has. We know he can really throw, but we had probably our fastest runner on third base, had to take a shot and he made a perfect throw all the way in the air. It was still awfully close, they got him though.”

The Razorbacks also had opportunities to score in each of the final four innings, but their best chance was probably in the eighth. Kendall Diggs reached on an error to start the inning and Ben McLaughlin beat the shift with a single to left with one out. A fly out to right allowed Diggs to tag up, but with runners on the corners and two outs, Peyton Holt struck out as a pinch hitter.

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

Game 2 of the Arkansas vs Auburn series is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT Friday, but the weather could impact that. There is a strong chance for rain at that time, which could force the two teams to play a doubleheader Saturday. If that happens, the two games will be seven innings because it’s the final day of the scheduled series.

“Auburn coaches were told by I guess whoever they deal with for the weather here that it might be a situation later in the evening, say 6 or 7, where we might have a window there,” Van Horn said. “But we’ll look at it. … We’re not going to start if there’s stuff rolling around and obviously if it just keeps raining. Plus we’ll have to look at the condition of the field. It looks like it could rain into Saturday, maybe midday, and that’s our last day to play.”

Regardless of when it ends up happening, right-hander Brady Tygart (3-0, 0.73 ERA) will get the ball for Arkansas and the Tigers will counter with right-hander Chase Allsup (1-1, 7.15 ERA).

Each of the final two games of the series will be streamed online on SEC Network-Plus.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • Arkansas baseball has now won 14 consecutive games, which is its second-longest single-season streak during the Dave Van Horn era. The Razorbacks won 15 straight in March last season, which was their longest since the 1996 team started 18-0.
  • With 12 more on Thursday, Hagen Smith now has 261 career strikeouts. That moves him into a tie with Scott Tabor for fourth on the UA all-time list. He needs to average only 10.6 per start to break Nick Schmidt’s record of 345 during the regular season. That doesn’t factor in potential postseason outings in the SEC and NCAA Tournament.
  • His final stat line may show up as 1 for 2, but that doesn’t do Wehiwa Aloy’s performance justice. Not only was his lone hit a home run, but the out he made came on a line drive with a 112 mph exit velocity right at the center fielder. He also walked and was hit by a pitch. Aloy has a team-high 20 RBIs this season and is 4 for 12 (.333) with three walks and only one strikeout through four SEC games.
  • Auburn catcher Ike Irish had a similar performance on the other side. He went 1 for 2 with a single, walk and hit by pitch. He also stole a base and threw out two base stealers for strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double plays. Coming into the night, Irish had thrown out only three of 20 base stealers this season.
  • Coming into the day, Cooper McMurray was Auburn’s best hitter. He was hitting .362 with a 1.306 OPS, 8 home runs and 28 RBIs. Against Arkansas pitching, though, he went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts. McMurray actually struck out on nine total pitches in his three at bats against Hagen Smith for his own personal “immaculate inning” of sorts.

Arkansas vs Auburn Highlights (Game 1)

Arkansas Baseball Postgame Interviews

NOTE: The connection was terrible, so the video is not any good, but the audio is mostly clear for the postgame interviews following Game 1 of Arkansas vs Auburn.

Arkansas vs Auburn Box Score (Game 1)

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