Demystifying Who Arkansas’ 3rd Starting Pitcher vs Florida Will Be

Colin Fisher, Mason Molina, Ben Bybee, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Florida
photo credit: Baumology / Baumology / Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — For the first time this season, No. 2 Arkansas will have a new face in its starting rotation for this weekend’s series against Florida.

Left-hander Hagen Smith will still start the opener, but right-hander Brady Tygart has been bumped up to Game 2 and the Razorbacks are leaving the third slot open with a TBA designation.

The move is the result of left-hander Mason Molina twisting the ankle of his plant foot at practice this week. Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn revealed the injury Thursday morning, but indicated it isn’t severe and shouldn’t keep him out for an extended period.

“We’re going to give him this week off to let that heal,” Van Horn said. “We could probably put him on the roster. We could probably pitch him. He’s probably 90%, but we want to make sure that next week and going forward, he’s at 100%.”

Molina is coming off his shortest outing of the season, lasting just 3 1/3 innings at South Carolina. He allowed only two earned runs on two hits while striking out three, but issued a career-high seven walks.

It might have been worse than his previous starts, but walks have been a problem since the fall for Molina, whom Van Horn has described as “effectively wild” throughout the season. He is now averaging 5.4 walks per nine innings, which is by far the highest rate among the 13 Arkansas pitchers who’ve thrown double-digit innings this year.

Despite that, Molina has typically been able to limit the damage and actually has really good numbers this season. In 10 starts, he’s 3-1 with a 3.47 ERA and 68 strikeouts. When he does throw strikes, the Texas Tech transfer is quite hard to hit, limiting opponents to a .182 batting average — the third-best mark in the SEC.

Predicting the Identity of TBA

If any team is equipped to handle the loss of a starting pitcher, whether for just one weekend or longer, it’s Arkansas.

Heading into the weekend, the Razorbacks lead all of college baseball in ERA (2.91), WHIP (1.09), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.79), hits allowed per nine innings (6.51) and strikeouts per nine innings (12.4).

As much attention as the starting rotation of Hagen Smith, Mason Molina and Brady Tygart gets, the key to ranking so high in each of those categories has been an impressively deep bullpen.

Not including those starters, 10 different Razorbacks have already thrown at least 10 innings and many of them have pitched with the game on the line. In fact, Van Horn has talked about the challenge of getting each of them enough work because they deserve more innings than they’re getting.

“At least we know that we’ve got some guys that have pitched in some big games and big situations, leverage situations and that they throw strikes,” Van Horn said. 

“We’ve done so well in midweek games this year, honestly, because our midweek guys throw it over the plate. Teams have hit it, but we haven’t been giving them runs as far as walks and hit by pitches and stuff like that. So at least we have some guys with experience that we know they’re going to come in there and make them earn it.”

The only other pitchers who’ve started games this year are sophomore right-hander Ben Bybee and freshman left-hander Colin Fisher. It’s probably a safe bet that one of them will get the nod and Van Horn might have already tipped his hand on which way he’s leaning.

Bybee started the midweek game against UAPB in North Little Rock on Tuesday, but threw only 33 pitches in two innings. Van Horn said he could have pitched more, but the plan was to pull him early because they already knew about Molina’s injury and wanted him available for the weekend.

In four starts and one relief appearance since missing the first part of the season with mono, Bybee has a 5.84 ERA and 17 strikeouts with only one walk in 12 1/3 innings. However, his numbers are skewed by a tough outing against Texas Tech last week. Take that out and he has a 1.54 ERA in 11 innings.

Fisher was the Razorbacks’ fourth starter while Bybee was out and has pitched very well, compiling a 6-1 record with a 2.67 ERA in 27 innings across seven starts and three relief appearances.

“We’ll go with the best option,” Van Horn said. “We could staff it, we could pitch it like a Tuesday game. We’ll figure it out after we’ve finished a couple of games on who we’re going to throw, at least start. It’s really who we’re going to start. Whoever we start is probably just going to go a few innings anyway.”

Arkansas Battling the Weather Again

The Razorbacks’ starting pitcher isn’t the only thing up in the air for Game 3 of the Arkansas vs Florida series. Which day it’s played — if at all — is also uncertain.

There is a chance for severe weather in Northwest Arkansas all weekend, which could complicate the current schedule of 7 p.m. CT Friday, noon CT Saturday and 2 p.m. CT Sunday.

As of Thursday morning, Van Horn said the plan was still to start the opener — which is being televised on SEC Network — at its scheduled time because it looks like there might be a window to play.

Playing on Friday is critical to getting all three games in because Sunday’s forecast “does not look good at all,” Van Horn said. The most likely scenario is playing a doubleheader on Saturday, which would be two nine-inning games because it’s not the final scheduled day of the series.

Last week, it wasn’t announced until Friday at 4 p.m. CT – two hours before the first pitch of Game 1 – that Arkansas and South Carolina would play the second and third games of their series in a doubleheader on Saturday, but Van Horn said such a move this weekend could happen sooner rather than later.

“I think the SEC rule states that if you’re going to make a decision to move a game, say a day and a half out, you’ve got to have at least 80% (chance of rain), and we’re definitely at 80 and 90,” Van Horn said. “Just listening to the local people speak about the weather on Sunday, they said it probably is not going to go away all day.”

Even with Friday’s game set to be nationally televised, Van Horn said moving up the start time wasn’t completely out of the picture because “we got to do what we got to do” to get the games in.

(UPDATE: Game 1 of the Arkansas vs Florida series has been moved up one hour to 6 p.m. CT Friday, the UA announced Thursday.)

Having an SEC game canceled because of weather doesn’t happen often, but there is precedent. It last happened to the Razorbacks in 2017, when rain the first two days of the series led to their third game at Tennessee being scrapped.

Other Arkansas Baseball Injury Updates

Following the Razorbacks’ win over UAPB, Dave Van Horn told reporters that Jared Sprague-Lott would “probably play” this weekend against Florida. He sounded even more confident about that Thursday morning.

“He’s going to play,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know if he’ll ever be 100%, but he hit with the team yesterday and he looked good. We’ll get him back in the lineup this weekend.”

The Richmond transfer has been Arkansas’ primary starting third baseman this year, but hasn’t started since last Tuesday against Texas Tech because of a back injury. He did enter as a defensive replacement late in two of the games at South Carolina, though.

Known more for his glove, he struggled a bit offensively to begin SEC play, but was starting to come on strong at the time of his injury. In the Ole Miss and Alabama series, Sprague-Lott went 8 for 20 (.400) with two doubles, three home runs, six RBIs, five walks, a HBP and six runs.

It also sounds like Kendall Diggs has gotten over the lingering shoulder issue he’s been dealing with since diving back into a base during the McNeese State series.

After not playing in either of the Texas Tech midweek games, the right fielder was back in the lineup against South Carolina and even had a couple of doubles in the series finale. He also started against UAPB and had an RBI single, making him 4 for 13 (.308) with four RBIs over the last three games.

“If he’s pain-free, he’s good,” Van Horn said. “He’s had some swelling and inflammation in there. He had some treatment and a few days off. He seems to be swinging the bat as good as he was earlier in the season. We’re excited to get him back.”

Coming out of the McNeese State series, when the injury occurred, Diggs was hitting .352. In a little over a month, though, that dropped nearly 100 points. After an 0-for-3 performance in the opener against South Carolina, his batting average dipped to .258.


Watch head coach Dave Van Horn’s full preview of the Arkansas vs Florida series here:

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