He was far from the team’s MVP on Friday — in fact, he might not have been top 3 for that imaginary award — but Tavian Josenberger’s return to the Arkansas baseball lineup was certainly felt throughout the dugout.
Making his first appearance since suffering a hamstring injury on April 22, the Kansas transfer was back in center field and in his usual leadoff spot against South Carolina, providing a spark to the already red-hot Razorbacks in a 4-1 series-opening win at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Josenberger didn’t have any RBIs or make any sensational catches, but he did reach three times — including a pair of walks in two of the three innings Arkansas scored in Game 1.
“It was amazing,” Josenberger said. “Honestly, I’m just blessed to be here, blessed to be healthy, blessed to be able to play. Fans gave me a nice ovation, but yeah, it was great to be back. Last couple weeks, they’ve been a grind. I’ve been working with the trainer, working with the strength coach a lot just to get back healthy as fast as possible.”
Speaking with reporters after the game, Josenberger revealed that he had been spending about two hours in the training room and another 60-90 minutes with the stretch coach every day over the previous two weeks in an effort to get back on the field.
There was hope that he might return last weekend at Mississippi State, as Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn included him on the 27-man roster, but he was still only about 80% healthy. Given another week to recover, he’s back to full strength.
“He’s 100%,” Van Horn said. “If he told me 90, I wasn’t going to play him. If the trainers told me 90, I wasn’t going to play him because it’s not worth it.”
Although he wasn’t voted a team captain, Josenberger has emerged as one of the team’s vocal leaders — after all, he is who rallied the troops after an embarrassing Game 1 loss to Alabama just as the calendar flipped to April.
Getting a guy like that back in the lineup has an impact felt beyond what appears in a box score.
“He’s a game-changer,” teammate Gage Wood said. “His emotion he brings to the game and everything, like even before games, he’s always locked in, and he’s a dude.”
Another teammate, right fielder Kendall Diggs, described him as an “energy guy” and said his presence was felt by the entire team.
“He’s our dude,” Diggs said. “We’ve been waiting for this day. I don’t know if you could tell, everyone had a little pep in their step. That’s just what he brings, and it was really good to see him back out there.”
Of course, Josenberger is also one of the best hitters on the team. After Friday, when he went 1 for 2 with two walks and a single, he is slashing .324/.440/.527 this season.
That is significantly better than how the Razorbacks fared without him in the outfield. With Jace Bohrofen sliding into his spot in center, they started four different players in left since Josenberger went down.
The quartet of Mason Neville, Hunter Grimes, Brady Slavens and Jayson Jones have gone a combined 4 for 48 (.083) with one double, six RBIs, only 13 free passes and 32 strikeouts as outfielders this season.
Despite all of that, Arkansas still won all six SEC games it was without Josenberger.
“For me, the biggest thing is winning baseball games,” Josenberger said. “I came here to win baseball games and we’ve been doing that as of late. So it’s not really about what I do on the field, it’s if I help the team win, so that’s all I’m trying to do every single day.”
Getting a player of Josenberger’s caliber back on the field is a significant morale boost for the Razorbacks, especially considering all of the injuries they’ve dealt with this year.
Even with his return, they’re far from fully healthy. Second baseman Peyton Stovall is out a second straight weekend with a shoulder injury and outfielder Jared Wegner isn’t expected to play this weekend after having pins removed from his hand earlier this week. He hasn’t played since breaking his thumb on April 14.
“He’s still having pain,” Van Horn said about Wegner. “He’s there, but he’s not swinging the bat right now. He’s available to run and catch the ball and score, run, but I’m not probably going to put him in there to hit this weekend unless it was what we had to do.”
A strong case could be made that the team MVP in the series opener against South Carolina was actually Kendall Diggs.
The right fielder had the RBI single in the third inning that got the scoring started and then drove in two huge insurance runs with another single in the seventh. That was part of a 2-for-4 performance that improved his batting average to .333 and increased his team-leading RBI total to 55.
“He’s been amazing,” Dave Van Horn said. “We wouldn’t be nearly where we are without his bat. For him to play defense out there, it gets us another DH in the lineup. I mean, he’s been nails.”
The latter of those two hits Friday came with the bases loaded, making him 7 for 15 with 24 RBIs in those situations this season.
“You’ve got to lay off those borderline pitches early and he seems to do that,” Van Horn said. “He’s gotten himself ahead in the count a little bit, and then you can guess. Take a shot at something. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. But if you get it you’re going to hit it hard and that’s what I think he did.”
Speaking after the game, Diggs said the hit came on a fastball in a 1-0 count — something he was expecting from South Carolina reliever Cade Austin.
“He was throwing a lot of changeups to the lefties, but with the bases loaded, he just missed a little bit with that first fastball,” Diggs said. “Looked like he had lost some feel for the changeup, so that’s what I was hunting. That’s what I got.”
Dating back to Game 2 of the Texas A&M series, Diggs now has at least one RBI in six straight SEC games — a stretch in which he’s gone 10 for 23 with 16 RBIs.
“He’s a huge part of why we’re winning baseball games and why we’re rolling right now,” teammate Tavian Josenberger said. “He’s seeing the ball really well, having great ABs, driving a lot of runs in.”
Same Formula, Different Ingredients
For much of the SEC slate, Dave Van Horn liked using a combination of Hunter Hollan and Hagen Smith to win Game 1 of the series. He implemented that strategy with success against Auburn, LSU and Tennessee — plus against Texas A&M with a one-inning bridge in between.
The last two weeks, though, Smith has moved into the Friday night starter role in order to push Hollan’s outings back a couple of days to give his leg injury some extra rest.
Instead of going Hollan-Smith to slam the door in series openers, Van Horn has gone Smith-Gage Wood. He needed a bridge last weekend, but the pair handled all nine innings Friday, limiting South Carolina to one run.
“That is their two best guys, clearly,” South Carolina baseball coach Mark Kingston said. “We made them work, but they are also very talented with elite stuff. They are (tough) to square up. We only had six hits tonight, but I thought we battled. You tip your cap. That’s their two best guys and they pitched like it tonight.”
One reason the Razorbacks didn’t need a bridge this time was because Smith was much more efficient. A week ago, Van Horn said the sophomore took a closer’s mentality into the game and it led to him wearing down quicker, as he needed a whopping 112 pitches to just get through five innings.
This time around, though, he was complimentary of Smith’s “really good demeanor” and said he was “composed” as a starter. That allowed him to work into the sixth inning on just 94 pitches.
He ended up allowing one earned run on four hits and three walks while striking out seven. That lowered his season ERA to 2.47 and he’s now averaging 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
“He had a couple of four-pitch walks and you’re kinda going what happened, then he’d kind of get it together,” Van Horn said. “If he could kinda make another jump, he could give us another inning. But super job. He worked out of a jam or two and gave us an opportunity to win.”
Smith might have been able to go a little longer, but South Carolina started to get to him in the sixth. Three of the first five batters in the inning reached on singles, including an RBI single by Braylen Wimmer that tied the game at 1-1.
It also put runners on the corners, so Van Horn made the decision to go ahead and bring in closer Gage Wood. The freshman “peppered the zone” with fastballs, while also mixing in some sliders and curveballs. The result was a career-high 3 1/3 innings in which he gave up two hits and hit a batter without allowing a run, earning his second career victory.
“I felt really good out there,” Wood said. “In the past, I’ve had trouble finishing it out, and I wanted to make sure I went out there in the ninth, and I just competed and made pitches and didn’t have to give everybody a scare.”
Wood induced the ground ball that got Arkansas out of the aforementioned sixth-inning jam and then allowed a one-out base runner in each of his three full innings. One was wiped out by a double play, but the other two were stranded. Four of the last six Gamecocks he faced went down on strikes.
“To me, it seemed like he was getting better as it went on a little bit,” Van Horn said. “Came in, he was okay, threw the ball well. His fastball was a tick harder. As far as command, it was better in the eighth and ninth, it seemed like to me.
“He dropped another breaking ball in there in the ninth, but he basically just went at them with fastballs. That’s basically what we want him to do, just pitch to both sides of the plate and make them swing, and he did it.”
As a duo, Smith and Wood held South Carolina to a 6-for-30 (.200) performance at the plate, including a miserable 2 for 15 (.133) with runners on base.
“They have a lot of power, big and strong,” Van Horn said. “For us to hold them to one run was just…I mean, that’s why we won the game, obviously. We didn’t hit a whole lot. We’d put together an inning or punch one in here or there in the other ones, but the pitching did it for us today.”
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks will have a chance to clinch the series in Game 2, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT Saturday. It will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.
As expected, right-hander Brady Tygart will get the nod for the Arkansas baseball team. It’ll be the former closer’s third career start, all of which have come as he’s made his way back from the UCL strain he suffered on March 1.
The sophomore has thrown exactly 20 pitches in each of his last two outings, but also threw another 15 in the bullpen after his last appearance. Dave Van Horn has previously said he’ll likely have a pitch count around 60 this time.
Redshirt junior Will McEntire could come in after him as he has the last two weekends, but Van Horn was noncommittal to that, pointing out that McEntire was getting loose in the bullpen Friday night in case Gage Wood was unable to finish it out.
It’s not yet known who South Carolina will start Saturday.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- Coupled with Vanderbilt’s run-rule loss at Florida, Arkansas’ win Friday night moved it into sole possession of first place in the SEC at 18-7.
- The Razorbacks have now won seven straight SEC games, as they swept Mississippi State and Texas A&M the last two weekends before opening this series with a win. It’s their longest conference winning streak since winning nine straight in 2019.
- With a sixth-inning single, Ben McLaughlin extended his hitting and on-base streaks to seven and 18 games, respectively. Both of them are the longest active streaks on the team, while the latter is also tied for the Razorbacks’ third-longest of the season. Since moving into the starting lineup in mid-April, McLaughlin is slashing .393/.500/.536.
- Making his fourth straight SEC start at second base in place of Peyton Stovall, Peyton Holt went 1 for 2 with a double, two walks and two runs Friday night. He also made a couple of really smooth plays in the field. “Holt’s done a really good job defensively since he’s gotten in the lineup,” Van Horn said. “He got a fastball in and got inside of it and flipped it down the line and ended up scoring. He was in the middle of it today for us. He’s done a great job.”
- The only two Razorbacks held without a hit Friday were arguably their two best hitters in the conference portion of the schedule. Jace Bohrofen (.341 in SEC play) went 0 for 3 with a walk, while Caleb Cali (.333) went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.
Arkansas vs South Carolina Highlights (Game 1)
Arkansas vs South Carolina Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs South Carolina Box Score (Game 1)
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