Unlikely Sources Power Hogs to Victory in SEC Opener vs Missouri

Ross Lovich, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Missouri
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas picked a great time to showcase its power.

With three of their four home runs coming in the first four innings, the No. 1 Razorbacks cruised to an 8-0 win over Missouri in Friday night’s SEC opener at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Freshman Nolan Souza hit the first and last of the long balls, while Ross Lovich and Kendall Diggs also homered to give Hagen Smith his most run support of the season.

One of the top power hitting teams in the country over the past seven seasons, Arkansas entered the weekend tied for 119th nationally with only 17 home runs, so the power display was a welcome sight for head coach Dave Van Horn.

“We know it’s in there, it just hadn’t happened yet,” Van Horn said. “We feel like we can hit for some power, and we’ve got a few other guys that obviously didn’t hit them tonight and they can leave the yard, as well. It’s nice to be able to have that, to be a threat really 1 through 9 to hit the ball out of the park, or at least over somebody’s head.”

It was just the second time the Razorbacks have hit four home runs in a game this season, with the other being in a midweek blowout of Grambling. It’s also the most they’ve hit in an SEC opener during the Van Horn era (since 2003).

The win extended Arkansas’ winning streak to 11 games and, more importantly, made it 1-0 in conference play.

“I told the guys it was a good win, but you’ve got to enjoy it for a little while and you’ve got to move on,” Van Horn said. “You’ve got 29 more to go.”

Here are several other takeaways from the Arkansas vs Missouri opener…

Unlikely Contributors in Arkansas vs Missouri

When Nolan Souza hit his first home run, he also drove in Ross Lovich to make it 2-0 in the second inning. To anyone who watched fall and preseason intrasquad scrimmages, it would have been unfathomable that those two were in the starting lineup for the SEC opener, must less scoring Arkansas’ first runs of conference play.

According to unofficial statistics compiled by the media, Souza posted the worst OPS (.467) and second-worst batting average (.159) on the team. Lovich was right behind him in OPS (.530) and hit a team-low .140.

Both of them were buried on the depth chart, too, with Lovich vying for the starting job in left field with Jayson Jones and Will Edmunson and Souza fighting for time in a loaded infield. The latter was definitely not seen as a potential designated hitter, as he struck out 24 times in 44 scrimmage at bats.

However, even though it didn’t necessarily translate to success in practice, Van Horn said he could tell Souza was different when he returned to Fayetteville in January.

“His batting practice was good, driving the ball the other way, the ball was just jumping off his bat and then we put him in the game,” Van Horn said. “As a coach you just kind of go, ‘Wow. This guy might be a gamer.’ He’s not scared. It’s not by going up there and hitting all the time, it’s by taking pitches that are borderline balls and you’re kinda going, ‘Wow. Sometimes that takes 2-3 years to figure that out.’ And if you can do that at a young age, where you’re not swinging at pitchers’ pitches, man, you can do some damage and that’s what he’s done.”

With a 98 mph exit velocity, Souza’s first home run was actually his softest-hit ball of the night. He followed it up by just getting under a pitch for a 104 mph fly out to right and then hit a 100 mph chopper up the middle for a single and crushing a 405-foot solo home run in the eighth inning that left the bat at 102 mph.

The 3-for-4 performance — which came in his first career start at designated hitter and Van Horn described as “unbelievable” — means the former top-100 recruit now leads Arkansas in each of the three slash categories: batting average (.423), on-base percentage (.559) and slugging percentage (.846).

“I’ve been swinging at the right pitches and that’s what is kind of leading to my success,” Souza said. “That’s something that I’ve struggled with in the preseason and something that really stood out to me is something that I needed to work on both when that fall ended, when I went home for winter break and then in the spring when I came back. It’s been one of the main things that I’ve been focusing on.”

When he scored on Souza’s first long ball, Lovich had got on base the hard way, by getting hit by a pitch. His next time up, he did the hitting. 

In a 2-1 count and with two runners on in the third inning, the Missouri transfer unloaded on Logan Lunceford’s next pitch and deposited it on top of the Hunter Center in right field for a three-run homer that made it 5-0.

“He laid off a tough pitch and he knew what he was getting, and he hit it,” Van Horn said. “I’m not saying he put the game away, but it gave us a lot of breathing room there where we could relax a little bit.”

Perhaps Lovich’s emergence has been less surprising than that of Souza because a lingering injury was partially to blame for his poor fall performance, plus he’s proven to be capable of hitting in the SEC.

Last season with the Tigers, he hit .306 with a .924 OPS in 98 at bats.

“I’ve been playing in this league for three years and I think that experience of playing everyday for a while helps,” Lovich said. “I know what I’m getting into when it comes to conference and preseason. Just really slowing the game down and never making it bigger than it is.”

Making the moment even sweeter for Lovich was the fact that he had quite a bit of family in the stands because his younger brother, Jackson, is Missouri’s starting first baseman.

Another Gem from Hagen Smith

With nine scouts from eight different MLB teams in attendance for Game 1 of Arkansas vs Missouri, Hagen Smith turned in yet another gem in his first SEC start of the season.

The left-hander scattered two hits and one walk across six scoreless innings Friday night, all while racking up another 10 strikeouts — his third time reaching double-digit punch outs in five starts.

“Even his misses were close tonight,” Van Horn said. “It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to watch from the side. And I think maybe people don’t realize what they’re watching because…I’ve watched a lot of baseball games, watched a lot of pitchers, had a lot of pitchers but Hagen is really good.”

Smith had a true four-pitch mix against Missouri. In addition to his upper-90s fastball, he also threw his cutter and slider quite a bit with a few splitters mixed in.

That helped him notch multiple strikeouts in four of his six innings, with only one in the other two innings. The three base runners he allowed came in different innings, as well.

“He’s done what he has been doing all year long,” Missouri baseball coach Kerrick Jackson said. “I wish our guys would have forced him into the zone a little bit better. I wish we would have shortened our swings and made some adjustments there, but you get caught up in the moment and the adrenaline can take over and put you in a tail spin. Basically that is what happened today. He is good, but we didn’t make it tough on him.”

In the first inning, Smith wiped out a two-out walk in a full count by picking off the runner at first. He gave up a one-out double in the fourth, but stranded him by following it up with a strikeout and line out.

The most trouble he was in came in the sixth when Jedier Hernandez reached on an infield single to start the inning. A sacrifice bunt moved him into scoring position with the top of the Tigers’ order up. Smith didn’t flinch, though, striking out Tucker Moore and Trevor Austin to end the inning and his outing.

Officially credited with throwing 100 pitches, Smith actually finished with 99, as he was given an extra pitch because of a glitch in the UA stat system that tacked on one on the pickoff.

“If it was later in the season, Hagen wasn’t done,” Van Horn said. “He could have gone another 20 pitches. He was fine. But we’re just doing the right thing.”

The outing gives Smith a 1.57 ERA and 0.70 WHIP with 50 strikeouts and only eight walks in 23 innings this season. Opponents are hitting just .108 against him and he now has a 3-0 record.

“It’s just hard to come out and be good every outing,” Van Horn said. “He’s become such a pitcher now. And you know he didn’t get all uptight when we didn’t make a couple of plays or he didn’t get a call. He just goes back on the mound and he goes to work.”

Preserving the Pen

The good news about Hagen Smith getting as much run support as he did was the fact that Arkansas didn’t have to use any of its go-to arms out of the bullpen.

Will McEntire and Gabe Gaeckle didn’t even warm up and Koty Frank only lightly tossed before Smith got through the sixth unscathed.

“I mean, it looks good on paper, but they gotta go out and do it,” Van Horn said. “Because those guys have come out of the pen in the fourth, fifth, held leads or given us a chance to build a lead and they’re still available.”

That allowed the Razorbacks to get another look at a couple of lesser-used relievers — sophomore right-handers Christian Foutch and Cooper Dossett.

It was just the third appearance of the season for Foutch, whose velocity is matched only by Smith and Jake Faherty on the team. He last threw a scoreless inning against Grambling on Feb. 27 and his only weekend outing came in the loss to James Madison on opening weekend.

Foutch gave up some hard contact, including a pair of hits, and didn’t strike anyone out, but threw two scoreless innings to preserve the shutout.

Dossett took over in the ninth and was electric. His first pitch was popped up to second and then he struck out the next two batters on three pitches, meaning all seven of his pitches were strikes. Even though he’s given up two earned runs, Dossett has yet to allow a hit in 4 1/3 innings this season.

“You never have enough and these guys, they showed us tonight we can put them out there again,” Van Horn said. “It doesn’t matter what the score is, it’s still Friday night in the SEC and you gotta go get people out and they did.”

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

The Arkansas vs Missouri series continues with Game 2 on Saturday. First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT and the game will be streamed online on SEC Network-Plus.

Right-hander Brady Tygart (3-0, 0.90 ERA) will start for the Razorbacks, while the Tigers will counter with left-hander Javyn Pimental (0-0, 2.84 ERA). Interestingly, Pimental is from Hawaii, which is the same home state as Arkansas shortstop Wehiwa Aloy and infielder/designated hitter Nolan Souza.

It’s also worth noting that Missouri’s announced rotation did not include right-hander Carter Rustad, who has easily been its best arm this season. In four starts, he has a 2.79 ERA and 0.78 WHIP with 19 strikeouts and only two walks in 19 1/3 innings. Opponents are also hitting just .178 against him. No reason for his absence has been given.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • The announced attendance for Game 1 of Arkansas vs Missouri was 10,109. That’s the third-largest crowd of the season, so far, at Baum-Walker Stadium. The high was 11,048 in the Razorbacks’ second game against Murray State. That mark could fall Saturday.
  • With Tucker Moore striking out in three plate appearances against Hagen Smith, opposing leadoff men are just 1 for 11 with a walk, a home run and 10 strikeouts against the left-hander.
  • For the third straight game, Arkansas’ starting pitcher picked off a runner in the first inning. This time, it was Hagen Smith who got Missouri’s Jackson Lovich to end the inning. On Tuesday, Colin Fisher picked off Oral Roberts’ Elijah Robinson for the first out of the game. Before that, Mason Molina picked off McNeese State’s Chase Keeton for the second out.
  • Speaking of Jackson Lovich, who started at first base for the Tigers, he is the younger brother of Ross Lovich, the Missouri transfer who started in left field for the Razorbacks on Friday. The youngest Lovich brother, Eli, is part of Arkansas’ 2024 signing class.
  • Hagen Smith has now faced five different leadoff men — James Madison’s Mason Dunaway, Oregon State’s Travis Bazzana, Murray State’s Drew Vogel, McNeese State’s Connor Westenburg and Missouri’s Tucker Moore — and they are a combined 1 for 11 against him. Dunaway drew a walk to open the season and Vogel hit a leadoff home run, but the other 10 at bats ended with strikeouts.
  • The Tampa Bay Rays, who hold the 18th overall pick in this summer’s MLB Draft, had two scouts in attendance for Friday’s game. Other teams who sent a scout include the Reds (No. 2 overall), Rockies (No. 3), White Sox (No. 5), Nationals (No. 10), Red Sox (No. 12), Giants (No. 13) and and Marlins (No. 16).
  • Here are the metrics — distance, exit velocity and launch angle — of the four home runs in Game 1 of Arkansas vs Missouri: 
    • Souza (1): 335 feet, 98 mph, 21.7 degrees
    • Lovich: 394 feet, 105 mph, 30.2 degrees
    • Diggs: 400 feet, 104 mph, 35.1 degrees
    • Souza (2): 405 feet, 102 mph, 29.9 degrees

Arkansas vs Missouri Highlights (Game 1)

Postgame Interviews

Reporters spoke with head coach Dave Van Horn, left-hander Hagen Smith, designated hitter Nolan Souza and left fielder Ross Lovich after Game 1 of the Arkansas vs Missouri series.

Arkansas vs Missouri Box Score (Game 1)

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