Auburn’s Worst Nightmare Strikes Again in Dramatic Game 2 Win by Arkansas

Ryder Helfrick, Will McEntire, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Auburn
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Auburn is probably sick of seeing Will McEntire on the mound when Arkansas pops up on its schedule.

The right-hander closed out one of the wilder regular-season games in recent memory with a perfect ninth inning, capping the No. 1 Razorbacks’ dramatic 6-5 win over the No. 23 Tigers at Plainsman Park on Friday.

It clinched the road series for Arkansas and extended its winning streak to 15 games, while also continuing an impressive individual stretch of dominance by McEntire against Auburn.

The Tigers have faced him five times since 2022 and never seem to have much success. The Bryant native knocked them out of the 2022 College World Series with arguably the best outing of his career, won the series-clinching game at Baum-Walker Stadium last year and has now thrown three perfect innings across the first two games this weekend.

He has a 2.33 ERA and 0.72 WHIP in 19 1/3 career innings against Auburn, plus is averaging 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings with an 8.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That isn’t quite Darren McFadden-against-South Carolina level of domination, but it’s certainly been more than enough to give the Tigers a headache.

What McEntire has accomplished so far this season, however, has been more reminiscent of another Arkansas legend. He has now pitched twice in five of the first six weeks of the season, including four weekends, in multiple different roles — much like Kevin Kopps two years ago.

“He’s really durable and Will’s an absolute animal and he wants the ball all the time and he said he felt really good,” pitching coach and acting head coach Matt Hobbs said. “The plan was if we took the lead, he was going to pitch.”

After needing only 22 pitches to retire all six Tigers he faced Thursday night as the bridge between Hagen Smith and Gabe Gaeckle, McEntire needed only 10 to go three up, three down and earn his second save of the year well under his 35-pitch limit set before the game. Hobbs said every pitch Friday night was a cutter and they were “really nasty.”

Granted, McEntire’s numbers aren’t quite as other-worldly as Kopps’ at this point of the season, but the way he’s used out of the bullpen — even if it’s not for as many innings each time — and how the coaching staff talks about them is similar.

“He’s a veteran and Will is about the toughest guy on the team, so those are the things that help him out mentally,” Hobbs said. “What makes him good physically is he’s got really good pitches. I think that everybody looks at velocity and thinks that’s the only thing that matters, but Will commands the baseball, Will is able to make pitches with multiple locations and he’s able to do different things with his cutter when he has to.”

Even the way McEntire so matter-of-factly answered a question about his last two outings on the UA’s postgame Zoom brought back memories of Kopps.

“It’s basically the same stuff as always,” McEntire said. “I feel better after a day of throwing. I just got with Coach Hobbs and said, ‘Hey, I feel even better today after throwing yesterday.’ I took my time warming up in the pen. I felt like I had some great stuff today. I went out and just played.”

He still has some work to do to fully reach that level, but that shouldn’t discount what McEntire has already done this year. He owns a 1.57 ERA and 0.70 WHIP with 32 strikeouts to only three walks in 28 2/3 innings across a team-high 11 outings.

Now in his fifth year at Arkansas, McEntire is finally putting everything together after showing glimpses of brilliance earlier in his career.

“Will is just really good and I think people are starting to see that this season,” Hobbs said. “I think he’s having a heck of a season and obviously we and he both hope it continues.”

And oh yeah — there’s no guarantee he’s done for the weekend after throwing only 32 total pitches. Hobbs admitted he’d be “hesitant” to use him three days in a row, but left that door open. If it’s up to him, McEntire will be on the board.

“Of course,” McEntire said. “I’m always ready.”

Holy Helfrick

The reason Will McEntire was even in the game in the ninth was because of a massive swing from an improbable source in the top half of the inning.

Making his SEC debut as a defensive replacement because he was the only available catcher, Ryder Helfrick went to the plate looking for a fastball he could elevate and got one on the first pitch he saw.

It was a no-doubter off the bat, easily clearing the Green Monster in left for a home run that broke a 5-5 tie. The only debate is just how far it traveled, as no one seemed to believe the 405-foot distance provided by TrackMan.

“Ain’t no way,” Hobbs said. “Trackman’s broke then.”

He didn’t provide an estimate other than “further than 405” and Helfrick just cared that it cleared the fence. McEntire threw out a number, though.

“It was about 500 feet,” said McEntire, who watched the ball sail out of the park from the visitor’s bullpen.

Regardless of the true distance, the fact it was Helfrick who delivered the clutch hit was unlikely because not only did he not start Friday, but he hadn’t even played in a game since March 9. His last hit was all the way back on Feb. 27 against Grambling, as the touted freshman was off to a rough 2-for-19 start to his career.

With Hudson White starting at designated hitter and Hudson Polk being left off the 27-man travel roster, though, he is who the Razorbacks turned to after pinch-hitting for Parker Rowland in the seventh.

Helfrick was tasked with catching the final three innings and even threw out Cooper Weiss trying to steal second — just the second time he’s been caught in 21 attempts this year. (Replays showed he was likely safe, but the Tigers had already burned their challenges.)

It was the very next inning that he delivered the big swing.

“I kind of blacked out,” Helfrick said. “I just swung the bat (and ran) the bases, but once I got in the dugout, it was pretty cool. Everybody was going crazy. It’s definitely a fun environment. Won’t forget that one for a while.”

Of course, that was the kind of swing Arkansas probably expected from him this year when he made it to campus as the No. 46 overall recruit and No. 3 catcher in the 2023 class, according to Perfect Game.

“That will be a super freshman for them,” Auburn baseball coach Butch Thompson said. “I think everybody in America wanted (and) tried to recruit that guy and were just waiting their turn. He got a pitch to hit and hit it out.”

Hogs Fight Back

One downside of having a pitching staff as dominant as the one Arkansas has is the offense is never really tested in adverse situations. Allowing just one run in their first four SEC games, the Razorbacks didn’t even trail in conference play until Friday night.

The good news is that almost every time Auburn scored, Arkansas answered in the next half inning. That was the case in three of the four innings in which the Tigers scratched across at least one run, leading to a wild back-and-forth affair.

“It’s punching back, man,” Hobbs said. “That is the hallmark of a good baseball team. … Any time you can score after they score, it’s a little bit demoralizing for them. I know because it is for us when it happens to us.”

Helfrick’s home run may have been the final blow, but it was far from the only clutch hit for a team that has seemed to lack them for stretches this season.

In fact, he wasn’t even the only lesser-used player to deliver in such a scenario. Making just his seventh start of the year, left fielder Will Edmunson went to the plate with the bases loaded in the fourth inning and jumped on the first pitch he saw for a two-run single that put Arkansas up by one. It immediately followed a bases-loaded walk by Jared Sprague-Lott in which he took a very close ball four in a full count.

Two innings earlier, Ben McLaughlin smoked a 403-foot home run to answer the one run Auburn had scored in the bottom of the first.

In the seventh inning, the Razorbacks took advantage of a throwing error by third baseman Caden Green. It moved Kendall Diggs from second to third and set up a game-tying sacrifice fly by Peyton Stovall.

“I think it really shows how mature this team is,” McEntire said. “We get behind early and we don’t panic. I don’t think anybody was worried all game.  They kept fighting back and we’d get behind and I didn’t see anybody like pushing too hard to try and do something. We all just stayed collected and worked together as a team.”

Run-Saving Web Gems

Although catcher Parker Rowland threw a couple of back-pick attempts into the outfield for a pair of errors, the Razorbacks also made some tremendous defensive plays to give their offense a chance.

In started in the fourth inning, when Ike Irish hit a line drive into right with two outs and runners on first and second. Kendall Diggs covered a lot of ground and made a diving catch to end the inning. Had he not caught it, the Tigers likely would have scored two runs on the play.

Irish did get a double to right in the sixth inning, but the speedy Cooper Weiss tried scoring from first on the play. Even though Diggs didn’t make a great throw, Peyton Stovall handled it and immediately threw a strike to the plate to get him. It saved one run for sure and who knows how the inning would have played out with a runner on third and one out instead of two.

As great of a play as it was for a casual observer, those who play the position — like former Arkansas baseball star Robert Moore — were even more impressed.

Finally, the Tigers had the bases loaded with one out in the seventh inning. After a strikeout by Stone Hewlett, Cooper Dossett came in and got a sharp grounder to first on his first pitch to Javon Hernandez.

Ben McLaughlin knocked it down, but it bounced away from him. He had to track it down in foul territory and then dive back to the base, with his glove tagging the bag just before the runner got there.

Had the Razorbacks not made those plays, it would have resulted in at least an addition four runs for Auburn, if not more — which is especially significant in a one-run game.

Van Horn Returns to Fayetteville

Less than two hours before first pitch, the UA announced head coach Dave Van Horn wouldn’t be with the team because of a “personal matter” Friday night.

Following the win, the veteran coach shared via Twitter that his daughter delivered three healthy babies, confirming speculation that he’d returned to Fayetteville for the birth of the triplets — his first grandchildren.

“I think the team just rallied together to try and make him proud,” Will McEntire said. “This is his brand of baseball that he’s built. We want to make him proud while he’s gone because we know he’s watching. Just play his brand of baseball. Be quality. Take care of the ball. Throw strikes. Good offense.”

In his absence, pitching coach Matt Hobbs served as the acting head coach, but in reality, he handling the pitching side of things while hitting coach Nate Thompson handled the offense. That meant Thompson stayed in the dugout when the Razorbacks were up to bat, leading to a domino effect of Bobby Wernes coaching third base and Clay Goodwin — the Director of Baseball Operations — filling in as the first base coach.

It’s actually the second time in as many weeks that Goodwin has coached first despite not being an on-field assistant. He also filled in when Wernes missed Game 2 of the Missouri series with the flu last weekend.

“Myself, Coach Thompson, Coach Wernes, Clay Goodwin, DJ Baxendale and Zach Barr are kind of all in there in the brain trust trying to figure out the best thing to do,” Hobbs said. “I think we just tried to think of, ‘What would Coach do?’ And then, ‘Do we have that option available?’”

Hobbs said he was unsure if Van Horn would return to Auburn to coach Saturday’s game.

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

That game is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT and the Razorbacks will be aiming for another sweep.

Left-hander Mason Molina (3-0, 2.74 ERA) will be on the mound for Arkansas, while Auburn will counter with right-hander Joseph Gonzalez (2-1, 6.92 ERA).

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • For just the third time this season, Arkansas’ starting pitcher gave up three or more earned runs. It was Brady Tygart’s worst start of the year, as he was charged with three earned runs on three hits and a career-high five walks while striking out four. He’s now issued nine walks across 8 1/3 innings his last two outings.
  • In his first outing in 10 days, left-hander Stone Hewlett was called upon to face left-handed pinch hitter Christian Hall with the bases loaded in the seventh and struck him out in a full count. The lefty specialist now has 10 strikeouts in four innings this year, with at least one in each of his seven appearances.
  • The game was delayed for about 30 minutes in the bottom of the eighth when home plate umpire Jeff Wright took a foul ball off the face mask and had to be replaced. Second base umpire Alfredo Burkeen took over behind the dish, but had to go off-sight to get the necessary equipment, leading to the lengthy delay.
  • Sophomore right-hander Cooper Dossett was on the mound when the delay happened and remained in afterward. He came back out and, in a 2-1 count, immediately got Ike Irish to fly out to right when play resumed. He then struck out Bobby Peirce to end the eighth. “Really proud of Coop for that,” Hobbs said. “He came up to me right as the break was happening and told me what pitch he wanted to throw and where he wanted to throw it and just got himself ready to do that.”
  • Auburn first baseman Cooper McMurray went went 0 for 3 with three strikeouts in Game 2, making him 0 for 7 with seven strikeouts so far in the Arkansas vs Auburn series. He did reach on a walk and hit by pitch Friday, though. Entering the weekend, he was the Tigers’ top hitter with a .362 average, 1.306 OPS, 8 home runs and 28 RBIs.

Arkansas vs Auburn Highlights (Game 2)

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Arkansas Baseball Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Auburn Box Score (Game 2)


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