Hogs’ Current Best Hitter Gets Topsy Turvy with Production + More from Michigan Nailbiter

Jared Sprague-Lott, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Michigan
photo credit: Crant Osborne

Arkansas nearly blew another ninth-inning lead, but managed to hang on and end its trip to Arlington, Texas, with a win. You wouldn’t have known it by listening to Dave Van Horn afterward, though.

The veteran coach had a longer-than-usual postgame chat with his team following the No. 2 Razorbacks’ 4-3 win over Michigan at Globe Life Field and then vented his frustrations from the weekend to reporters.

Even when asked about Mason Molina’s excellent start, Van Horn quickly circled back to his scuffling offense. Arkansas scored just 10 runs in 31 innings and slashed .174/.318/.248, giving it a .566 OPS.

“He didn’t get much help behind him, none of our pitchers did,” Van Horn said. “Offensively, we weren’t swinging the bat worth a darn all weekend.”

Despite the lack of hitting, the Razorbacks still had plenty of chances because they were gifted so many base runners, as they drew 15 walks, were plunked eight times and reached via error four times.

However, they ended up stranding 31 runners on base — an average of one per inning — and went just 7 for 37 (.189) with runners in scoring position, including 1 for 14 in the 14-inning loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday.

“On the offensive side, my biggest takeaway is we got to get better,” Van Horn said. “This was really disappointing.”

That performance against the Cowboys prompted Van Horn to make some significant changes to his starting lineup, with four players making their first start of the weekend and only two of the five holdovers hitting in the same spot in the order as the first two games.

Will Edmunson got the nod over Jayson Jones in left field and Nolan Souza started at second base over Peyton Holt. Hudson White and Ryder Helfrick each got the day off, with Parker Rowland starting at catcher and Kendall Diggs sliding to designated hitter. That opened a spot in right field for Ross Lovich.

“The other guys aren’t hitting, why not give those guys a shot, right?” Van Horn said. “They’re good players, too. Didn’t get much out of it. It’s kind of what I did last weekend, too. We don’t know who our starters are right now. We thought we did, but right now, I’d say there’s about 50% of the jobs are still wide open.”

With Saturday’s marathon not ending until about 11 p.m. and first pitch against Michigan set for 1 p.m., the Razorbacks had only 14 hours to regroup after the heartbreaking loss.

Van Horn was concerned about his team being tired or drained, but hoped the new faces might spark Arkansas’ offense. Instead, the four new starters went a combined 0 for 10. That group did draw seven of the Razorbacks’ 13 free passes, but also struck out six times. Of the four times they put the ball in play, three of them resulted in double plays.

“Some of the guys were (tired), but not most of the guys that played,” Van Horn said. “Catcher hadn’t played all weekend, second baseman hadn’t played all weekend, left fielder, right fielder, they hadn’t played all weekend, so I was hoping they’d bring a little energy to the game, and… I don’t know. I didn’t see a lot of energy.”

This isn’t exactly new ground for Van Horn, though. Just two years ago, the 2022 team had one of the Razorbacks’ most hyped lineups in recent memory, but got off to an incredibly slow start similar to this year.

After a three-game series against Illinois State and three games at the Round Rock Classic, Arkansas was averaging just 3.7 runs while slashing .213/.326/.361 with a .687 OPS.

Those are actually worse numbers than this year’s offense, which is actually averaging 5.4 runs with a .248/.385/.378 slash line and .763 OPS. However, those stats are inflated by a run-rule win in Game 2 of the James Madison series. Take out that 15-run explosion and the numbers are eerily similar to the start of 2022: 3.8 runs/game, .223/.354/.337 slash and .691 OPS.

The good news is the 2022 team eventually improved and still finished middle of the pack in the SEC in most offensive categories during conference play. It also finished one win shy of reaching the College World Series finals.

Defensive Meltdown

Arkansas has been one of the better fielding teams in the country over the past several seasons, but it was defense that nearly cost it the win Sunday afternoon. The four errors they committed were the Razorbacks’ most in a game since also committing four against UAPB on April 14, 2021 — a game they won 26-1.

Their mistakes were much more costly in a tight game against Michigan. It started in the eighth inning, when Jared Sprague-Lott’s throw to first on what looked like a routine play was wide and got by first baseman Ben McLaughlin. That put Will Rogers on second and set up an RBI single by Bradley Navarro, breaking up the shutout with an unearned run.

The wheels really fell off in the ninth. Michigan had already scored one run to pull within 4-2, but there were two outs and Koty Frank induced a ground ball to third by Kyle Dernedde. Instead of ending the game, though, Sprague-Lott’s throw was off line again and a run to score.

That extended the game and things got really interesting when Rogers followed with a single. Still, it seemed like Frank got out of it by getting Navarrow to hit a ground ball to second. In the game as a defensive replacement, Peyton Holt booted it to load the bases.

“On that play right there, he got caught in between trying to tag him and just going to field the ball,” Van Horn said. “When it’s that close, just attack and throw the guy out at first. Our starting second baseman has a broken foot, so I’m a little frustrated, if you can tell.”

Luckily for the Razorbacks, Stephen Hrustich flied out to right to end the game with the bases loaded and preserve a 4-3 win, giving Frank a very stressful save.

“What’d (Frank) have to get, five outs that inning?” Van Horn said. “If he had to get three, it would’ve been a pretty easy inning. But obviously that didn’t happen.”

It was a rough couple of days for Sprague-Lott, who also committed two errors in the Oklahoma State loss. The second of those was failing to come up with a grounder by Charlie Carter that set up the walk-off suicide squeeze.

At the plate, though, the Richmond transfer has been arguably the Razorbacks’ most consistent hitter. He went 6 for 12 with three doubles and three free passes (one walk, two HBP). Through six games, Sprague-Lott actually leads the team in batting average (.429), on-base percentage (.571) and slugging percentage (.714).

That is quite the role reversal for a guy Van Horn consistently praised for his defense during the preseason, leading to him getting inserted into the lineup when Peyton Stovall went down with a broken foot.

“We thought he was going to be a really good defender and a below-average hitter,” Van Horn said. “Right now, he’s our best hitter and not doing real well in the field. … That’s the way this game works, man. That’s crazy.”

Another Starter Gem Caps Weekend

The wild finish to the game nearly led to another no decision for a tremendous outing by Arkansas’ starting pitcher.

Hagen Smith didn’t get the win Friday despite racking up 17 strikeouts in six scoreless innings. Neither did Brady Tygart the next day, even though he also didn’t allow a run in six innings.

On Sunday, it was left-hander Mason Molina’s turn. He wasn’t quite as efficient as his predecessors, but still gave the Razorbacks five scoreless and hitless innings while allowing two base runners (one walk, one HBP) and striking out 10.

“Fastball was pretty good,” Molina said. “Changeup also felt pretty nice. But everything (worked) pretty much. I’m really happy with the way me and Parker (Rowland) worked together and called the game.”

Each time the Wolverines got on base against him, Molina responded in dominant fashion.

After a one-out HBP in the second, the Texas Tech transfer struck out the next two batters. He got Cole Caruso looking and Kyle Dernedde swinging.

The next inning, he walked Brock Leitgeb to start the third. Michigan tried to bunt him over, but Molina fielded the sacrifice attempt by Greg Pace Jr. and immediately fired a strike to second to get the lead runner. After that, he struck out Stephen Hrustich and Jack Counsell, the Wolverines’ leadoff and 2-hole hitter, respectively.

“Molina was tough,” Michigan baseball coach Tracy Smith said. “We faced him last year at Texas Tech and lost. He is a very good pitcher. If they had kept him in there nine, it might not have been like that. He is that good.”

Despite an outcry from some fans, Van Horn was never going to keep Molina in the game for nine innings. Like Smith and Tygart, he was still on a pitch count. That’s why he was pulled after five innings, as he was at 81 pitches.

The fact he made it through five innings was notable considering his struggles with command during the preseason and even in his first outing, when he was pulled after throwing 72 pitches in 3 2/3 innings against James Madison.

“I think we just figured out some things — I was flying open, whatever it may be,” Molina said. “So we found a way to calm myself down in a game.”

Arkansas’ three starters finished the weekend with video game-like numbers, combining to allow only six hits and four walks while striking out a whopping 33 batters in 17 innings – nearly two strikeouts per inning. Opponents hit just .109 against them and all six hits were singles, with three of them not even leaving the infield.

Even though those incredible numbers resulted in only one of the starters earning a “win,” Van Horn credited them for helping Arkansas baseball get out of Arlington with a 2-1 record.

“That was big,” Van Horn said. “Obviously we’d be 0-3 if they didn’t pitch good. We know that we have a good pitching staff.”

Managing the Bullpen

Arkansas baseball has a loaded bullpen and that was on display Sunday.

The Razorbacks were without two key arms, as left-hander Parker Coil was unavailable because he’s sick and right-hander Ben Bybee has yet to pitch this year because he’s dealing with mono and is only 10-12 days into the 21-day protocol for the infection.

Throw in five extra innings on Saturday and most teams would be scraping the bottom of the barrel in the late innings of Game 2. Arkansas, however, was able to recycle a couple of guys capable of pitching twice on a weekend.

Right-hander Will McEntire was first out of the pen after throwing one inning on Friday. He lost the no-hitter with two outs in the seventh, but should have given the Razorbacks three scoreless innings of relief. Instead, an aforementioned error led to Michigan getting on the board with an unearned error.

“He was ready to go,” Van Horn said. “He just threw a little bit on Friday. He’s kind of a twice-a-weekend guy, strike thrower with the cutter. Two innings, he did a good job for us. We probably could have brought him back out. Just felt like maybe with a three-run lead we could probably get him out.”

Even with giving up a couple of hits and one walk, plus the error, McEntire had thrown only 35 pitches in three innings. Arkansas could have stuck with him, but opted to go to the bullpen again in the ninth with a 4-1 lead.

Right-hander Gage Wood was also warming up, but Van Horn went with right-hander Koty Frank. He was electric in 1 2/3 scoreless innings Saturday night and had thrown five nearly perfect innings to start the season.

“He’s been throwing the ball really good, throwing a lot of strikes, mixing it up,” Van Horn said. “It seemed like the breaking ball was probably more what they had trouble with, so we went with him.”

Despite his defense collapsing behind him, Frank got Stephen Hrustich to fly out to right to end the game, stranding the bases loaded and preserving a one-run win. It was his second save of the year.

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

After three games in Arlington, the Razorbacks return to Baum-Walker Stadium for a 12-game homestand beginning Tuesday. They’ll host Grambling for a single midweek game, with first pitch scheduled for 3 p.m. CT.

Despite all but one of their games coming against fellow HBCUs, the Tigers have lost five straight and are just 1-6. However, three of those losses have been by one run.

Arkansas has never lost to a school in the SWAC, going a perfect 30-0 against the conference. That includes a 10-0 mark against Grambling, with those wins coming by an average of 7.2 runs. There have been some close calls, though, with three one-run games and last year’s 9-7 win.

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