Arkansas’ Strength Becomes Kryptonite + More from Series Loss at Kentucky

Peyton Holt, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Kentucky
photo credit: SEC Network

Throughout the season, Arkansas’ undisputed x-factor has been its terrific pitching staff, which has gotten it out of some tough situations this season.

But in Lexington this weekend, the No. 2 Razorbacks’ usual strength became their downfall as they lost the rubber match to No. 8 Kentucky, falling 7-4 at Kentucky Proud Park on Sunday.

With the series level at one game apiece, all the cards were on the table in a Game 3 matchup that gave sole possession of first place in the SEC to the victor.

Adding to the stakes was No. 1 Texas A&M’s series loss to LSU, which opened the door for Arkansas (40-9, 17-7 SEC) to potentially take back the top spot in the rankings with a road win this weekend. Instead, it was the Wildcats (35-10, 18-6) who stepped up to the plate, both literally and figuratively, to take over atop the SEC standings.

A day after surrendering 11 runs to Kentucky, the Arkansas pitching staff gave up another seven on Sunday to seal the Hogs’ second series loss of the season.

Molina’s Return Doesn’t Go As Planned

What made Arkansas’ pitching struggles this weekend even more surprising was the fact that pitching coach Matt Hobbs’ three-headed monster of a starting rotation was back intact for the trip to the Bluegrass State. 

An ankle injury forced Mason Molina to miss his scheduled start last weekend against Florida. Brady Tygart filled in for the second game of the series and helped clinch the series for Arkansas, with Ben Bybee filling the vacant spot for the final matchup.

Molina was back in action against the Wildcats, but it was a shaky outing, to say the least. The trouble started early, when second baseman Emilien Pitre took him yard in the first inning to give Kentucky a 1-0 lead. After a scoreless second frame, designated hitter Nick Lopez roped a two-run homer over the left field wall to extend that lead to three and ultimately end Molina’s day.

The junior lefty’s final line was full of threes, with most of them not being good ones: 3 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 3 BB and 3 SO. He was inefficient, too, throwing 67 pitches.

“Molina just didn’t throw enough strikes,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “He had a really high pitch count for three innings”

It’s the second start in a row where Molina has failed to make it out of the fourth inning. Two weeks ago against South Carolina, he lasted just 3 1/3 innings after allowing two earned runs and walking seven batters as his command let him down.

The Texas Tech transfer still has a solid season ERA of 3.81, but his recent form has his starting position under close consideration. With such a deep pitching staff, there’s hardly any room for error. Judging by Van Horn’s comments after Gage Wood’s standout performance in relief Saturday, it sounds like Molina could be in trouble.

While Arkansas’ rotation has been set in stone for pretty much the entire season, the rotation for next weekend’s series against Mississippi State could very well feature an eye-catching change.

Return of the Mac’s Struggles

When Molina was pulled, Van Horn turned to Will McEntire in the fourth inning. The veteran righty has been a rock-solid option out of the bullpen, but found himself struggling over a prolonged stretch. Entering this week’s games, McEntire had allowed opponents to bat .457 against him over his last five outings.

All appeared to be well when he pitched a perfect inning against Missouri State in the midweek and then threw two scoreless frames against Kentucky on Friday. But the wheels came off again for the senior in the rubber match.

McEntire recorded just two outs and allowed three earned runs on a trio of doubles from the Wildcats before Christian Foutch entered in relief and got the final out. The repeated struggles of Arkansas’ most-used reliever is certainly a cause for concern going forward, and something that Hobbs and McEntire will be working on.

“Looking back on the game, it kind of got away from us there in the fourth,” Van Horn said. “We were going to try to get an inning or two out of (McEntire) and it didn’t work out. He was fine. I think he threw, like, 35 pitches on Friday. He wasn’t on the board yesterday. We were getting him ready for today. Our whole plan was to get him through a couple (innings).”

McEntire’s 46 2/3 innings of work are by far the most of any bullpen arm that the Razorbacks have – with Gabe Gaeckle in a distant second with 31.2.

The duo of Foutch and Gaeckle was the bright spot for the Hogs on an otherwise dreary day, as the pair combined to throw 4 1/3 innings with no earned runs to keep the game within striking distance after a rough start.

“I think Gaeckle knew he was going to be in there for a while,” Van Horn said. “He was just trying to get them out. Wasn’t really worried about striking them out. Wasn’t trying to blow them up in one inning. It wasn’t like a save situation. It was really mature of him doing that.

“Christian threw the ball with some sink. The couple of times he left it up, that was the balls that were getting driven out there a little bit. When he kept it down, he got ground balls. He kept his pitch count down. I think he got four outs in 15 pitches or so. That was really good to see.”

Slow Start for the Bats

Unfortunately, the Razorbacks’ offense was unable to conjure up a comeback despite the bullpen keeping things from getting ugly in the back half of the game. Arkansas slammed the Wildcats for 10 runs on Friday night, but scored just seven total runs across the last two games of the series.

Kentucky starter Mason Moore opened the game with four hitless innings. By the time Arkansas registered its first base hit, it was already down 6-0. It was another poor performance from the offense against a pitcher in Moore who has been far from dominant in SEC play. The junior righty has a 5.08 ERA on the season, and had surrendered 19 earned runs in his last 12 innings of work.

But he had his best stuff today – and the Razorbacks also made him look good with a poor plate approach throughout the day. Arkansas finally chased him from the game after scoring two runs in the fifth inning on an RBI single by Wehiwa Aloy and a sacrifice fly by Jared Sprague-Lott.

“That was a little bit disappointing,” Van Horn said. “But really when you look at the series, we didn’t play great. We didn’t hit. We didn’t pitch very good after Friday. And they just beat us.”

An RBI single by Kendall Diggs in the seventh and a consolation solo homer by Peyton Stovall in the ninth made the scoreboard appear better than the actual state of affairs, as Kentucky controlled this game from start to finish. Any damage done by the offense was too little, too late as the attempted comeback fell short.

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

Arkansas will host Mississippi State (32-16, 14-10 SEC) next weekend for its final home series of the season. First pitch between the Razorbacks and the Bulldogs is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CT Friday. The first two games of the series will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus, and the finale will be televised on SEC Network.

“We feel good where we’re at,” Van Horn said. “As a coach, you just want to see your team continue to get better. I’ve seen us go up and down a little bit. I’ve seen the hitting fade a little bit, I’ve seen the pitching fade a little bit. Then all of a sudden, they kick it back in. But it’s just baseball. It’s just the way it is. I just want to make sure at the end of the season that we are healthy and that we have a chance when we get to the playoffs.”

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • Most of Arkansas’ offensive production was courtesy of second baseman Peyton Stovall and catcher Hudson White. Those two combined to go 12 for 25 (.480) against the Wildcats, while the rest of the team went just 14 for 80 (.175).
  • Backup catcher Parker Rowland started as the Razorbacks’ designated hitter in the Arkansas vs Kentucky finale. He went 0 for 4 with a strikeout, plus grounded into a double play. Arkansas has now started 10 different players at DH in 49 games.
  • Since moving to the outfield, Peyton Holt has not looked like a converted infielder, as he’s made several tremendous plays – including the Deke Heard ‘Round the World against Florida. However, Sunday wasn’t his best performance. The Greenwood native had a ball bounce out of his glove on what would have been a really nice running grab on the warning track and also lost the ball as he tried to throw it back in after a single. The former was ruled a double and led to an extra run scoring, while the latter was an error that directly led to a run. Of course, Holt also made a great diving catch in center to limit the damage after that first play.
  • Reliever Gabe Gaeckle threw the final three innings for Arkansas, allowing an unearned run on two hits. The right-hander didn’t have a strikeout or walk, but the outing lowered his season ERA to 2.27.
  • Arkansas pitchers combined for only four strikeouts, matching a season low. The only other time it had that few strikeouts was in the series finale at Alabama, which the Razorbacks lost to drop their only other series this year.
  • Kentucky second baseman Emilien Pitre had himself quite the weekend, adding another couple of extra-base hits – a double and a homer – to his resume Sunday. He went 5 for 10 with three doubles, one home run, six RBIs, two walks, a HBP and four runs against Arkansas.

Arkansas vs Kentucky Highlights (Game 3)

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Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Kentucky Box Score (Game 3)


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