The pain from Tuesday night still lingers. For the first time in the 2022 season, the #4 Arkansas Razorbacks (34-11) dropped a midweek game. The Diamond Hogs had been stellar in the midweek going 10-0 this season and Tuesday’s 6-4 loss to Missouri State snapped an 18-game midweek winning streak dating back to 2021. Despite how terrible the fan base might have thought that loss was, it shouldn’t be forgotten that winning 18 of those in a row is a pretty remarkable feat.
As a reality check, #3 Oklahoma State dropped a Tuesday tilt with Oral Roberts 15-9 in mid April. #5 Virginia Tech lost midweek to James Madison 5-2 in March. #6 Miami lost to instate opponent Stetson 12-6 last Tuesday. This kind of thing happens.
Missouri State deserves a tip of the hat as they played a rock-solid baseball game. Timely hitting, excellent pitching and they handled a defensive meltdown in the bottom of the 9th to hang on with the tying run at second and the winning run at the plate. Despite having a down season by Missouri State standards, Coach Keith Guttin’s Bears are a routine NCAA tournament participant and always field competitive teams.
College baseball, unlike football and basketball, doesn’t always allow for coaches to send out their best lineup, and definitely not their best pitching since that is saved for the weekend. To think the Hogs have been able to run out non-conference starters and numerous relievers over the 18-game streak and not falter speaks a lot to the depth of the pitching staff coach Matt Hobbs has assembled. Against Missouri State, the pitching wasn’t great as there were too many walks (8) and a couple of meat balls were jacked out of the yard for two run dingers, but it was manageable. Several of the veteran relievers who pitched did their job without a hiccup.
These midweek games often see coaches sliding in position players who haven’t been getting a lot of at bats or some guys need some rest. Catcher Michael Turner sliding to the DH spot and backup Dylan Leach catching the midweek games has been routine for the Hogs. Such movement is very normal, especially this late in the season.
For the most part, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn’s lineup card has been filled with the normal starters in their normal spots. Mostly, that’s an effort to keep them sharp. Baseball players prefer playing baseball to sitting and watching.
Razorbacks’ Issues vs Missouri State
On Tuesday night, though, it seemed numerous Arkansas baseball players in the lineup seemed to be about as interested in that game as one looks forward to a root canal. Effort and energy looked off from the get go and didn’t really get going until the very end:
There are a laundry list of possible factors, from a small crowd turning out because of a non-name brand (but talented) opponent in a game that didn’t seem too mean much compared to the intense series with Ole Miss last week, or the HUGE matchup this weekend with second place in the SEC West Auburn at their place. There are also Finals coming up next week, although that affects most teams.
Some may call those excuses. But likely every one of them influenced the players in one way or another vs Missouri State. There’s no other way to detail the rather listless performance at the plate. Missouri State’s pitchers threw very well but the starter who went 5 innings and only allowed a Leach solo home run came into the game with an ERA over 5.00. That isn’t exactly the type numbers that should lead to the underwhelming offensive performance.
One could blow that off as a bad night at the ballpark but last week in North Little Rock, University of Central Arkansas pitcher Oliver Laufman came into the game with an ERA over 8 and shut the Hogs down in a 2-1 extra inning loss.
The offensive struggles have been apparent since the season started, which goes against almost every preseason prognostication. The book on the Hogs coming into this season was going to be a lethal offense, a top flight defense and hopefully some pitching pans out.
Arkansas Baseball Defense
Only one of those has proven to be true. The defense has been outstanding and currently is second in the nation in fielding percentage. Routine plays, Sportscenter Top 10 plays and everything in between has the defense living up to the hype. The only real falter was the defensive performance at Texas A&M where the Hogs made an uncharacteristic five errors (three by the otherwise dependable Cayden Wallace) in the series. Those errors matter when you lose two one run games on the road.
The pitching thus far has far exceeded expectations. With ace Peyton Pallette going down before the season with an injury and the remarkable Kevin Kopps and last year’s ace Patrick Wicklander gone, the returning and incoming pitching staff wasn’t given much respect. As of today, the Razorbacks are sixth in the country in team ERA at 3.33.
Connor Noland has been a bonafide Friday night ace up to this point. Even his off games have been competitive. The highly regarded freshman Hagan Smith has been lights out at home and decent on the road outside of the loss at Florida. Jaxson Wiggins has slid lately with the inability to find the strike zone enough, but he had some early season success that hopefully returns.
Then the bullpen has been ignited by the electrifying freshman Brady Tygart on the backend with lefties Evan Taylor and Zach Morris as the setup guys. With Smith’s shaky road performances and Wiggins’ recent struggles, the previously mentioned guys – plus a occasionally effective Kole Ramage – will be key on the run to the postseason.
Then comes the offense. After leading the country in home runs a year ago, the Hogs currently rank 25th with 41 fewer home runs than the nation’s leader, Tennessee. Granted, the Vols play in a band box known as a hitter’s park and the winds at Baum-Walker Stadium blowing in from right field have seemed to be excessive this particular season. But with an offensive philosophy centered on big flys, the production hasn’t been there. That in turn has made things very difficult for the Hogs in terms of manufacturing runs, clutch hitting and stringing together big innings.
Dave Van Horn has tried different guys such as Kendall Diggs who have produced here and there. Jace Bohrofen seems to be fully healed from his injury and is having good at bats more times than not since getting back in the everyday lineup recently. Braydon Webb has shaken off a horrific start to the season to become one of the more consistent and feared hitters in the lineup. Grad transfers Michael Turner and Chris Lanzilli have been as advertised and are each having quality seasons, in and out of conference.
But the overarching performance of the offense has everyone in and out of the program concerned. The Razorbacks are hitting a mundane .254 as a team in SEC play, which ranks 9th in the league. They rank between 8-11 in nearly every key offensive statistic. I don’t think this is the high octane offense that Van Horn or hitting coach Nate Thompson envisioned going into the season. It has left both coaches scratching their heads.
This hasn’t been a completely punch-less offense in 2022 but there does seem to be a bigger lack of production with runners in scoring position than in recent memory. Stranded runners galore regardless of facing SEC level pitching or midweek non-Power 5 schools. Production is the name of the game, regardless of how and there are some key components of the Razorback offense falling short.
A red alert to the lack of clutch hitting or the inability to string together base runners was evident this past weekend. While taking 2 of 3 from a pesky but underachieving Ole Miss squad, the Hogs scored all 12 runs in the series via the home run. Van Horn has tried bunting more than normal as well as swiping some bases and even some hit and runs trying to get the offense kick-started but without much success.
A few key everyday players are struggling mightily in SEC play and unfortunately there is no way to sugarcoat that. Brady Slavens, Peyton Stovall and Robert Moore are hitting a wimpy .197 in SEC play headed into the series at Auburn. Throw in sliding backwards Cayden Wallace and that puts half the lineup in a funk. Slavens has been barreling more baseballs of late and Stovall was replaced by Diggs last weekend. That may continue as Diggs hit numerous balls on the button last weekend besides the walk off homer on Saturday and Stovall is nursing a busted finger.
Perhaps Wallace and Moore are feeling some draft pressure. Maybe the holes in their swings are well documented by the scouting reports and pitchers are executing nearly without fail. Maybe something else is going on and that would only be known to those inside the program. At any rate, those guys are irreplaceable in the 2022 lineup and their ability to get it going again with the bat is crucial for any type of postseason run.
Dave Van Horn’s Philosophy in Question
This team is built to drive opposing pitch counts up, get a couple of runners on and hit the ball off or over the wall. That’s the offensive philosophy the Razorbacks have bought into and aligns with the trend in modern day baseball. The coaching staff didn’t recruit guys to slap singles or steal 20+ bases so DVH can’t and won’t make a switch this late in the season. That’s like going from a run and shoot, west coast offense in football to a wishbone formation to run every down. The pieces and parts don’t fit.
As much as some Arkansas baseball fans would like for DVH to take over the offense or fire Coach Thompson (yes, there was numerous social media posts Friday night after the loss to Ole Miss with this line of thinking), such a quick-trigger reaction is simply ludicrous. Last year’s dominant offense led the country in home runs. For those with a really short memory, what Tennessee is doing is what the Hogs did last season, minus the obnoxious hot dogging and bat flips. Home runs galore and tons of production.
The Coach Thompson-led offenses with Heston Kjerstad, Casey Martin, Dominic Fletcher, Matt Goodheart, Trevor Ezell, Christian Franklin, etc. were pretty dang good too.
Why this season is a struggle is puzzling. I think the quality of pitching in the SEC is down a tick. There aren’t a bevy of first rounders scattered around the league like in recent years. But this season’s Hogs have struggled against several pitchers outside the SEC too. The talent for the Hogs seems to be there. Why it hasn’t gelled as an offensive juggernaut as expected in the preseason may forever be a mystery.
Find Hope in Mississippi State, Hog Brethren
There is still time to get hot and make a magical run to Omaha. If one believes in “due factor”, the Razorback offense is definitely due to explode. That’s a little harder against the quality arms they will see for the rest of the season, but it’s not an impossible task.
This team has not played its best baseball despite being in the top 5 most of the season and currently leading the SEC West by two games with three weeks left. That’s the quality of the program Dave Van Horn has built. This group is not playing great baseball and still winning ball games. DVH will be the first to tell you that.
He knows there is more in the tank and is trying to push all the right buttons to get this train rolling down the tracks like it’s capable.
For the record, last year’s Mississippi State team won the national championship with a team batting average of .278. The Hogs are currently hitting .277. MSU averaged 7 runs a game, while these Razorbacks average 7.1. As far as RBIs per game, the Hogs are averaging 6.62 while the 2021 Bulldogs were 6.42. Very, very comparable. The Bulldogs just got hot at the right time. If you recall, the Razorbacks swept the Bulldogs in Starkville last season.
The trick is when the hits occur and what kind of hits. When you need a double, you rap a double. When you need contact with a runner on third and less than two outs, you put the ball in play and avoid the strikeout. That’s clutch, situational hitting. Thus far, that’s a weak spot where the Razorbacks have struggled. But there is plenty of baseball left.
Do the Hogs have to pick up the pace offensively? No question. Does the pitching need to maintain or even improve during this stretch run? For sure. Does the defense have to continue playing clean baseball? Absolutely.
Those are the same wishes every coach, player and fan base in the country has with the season winding down.
Keys for Arkansas vs Auburn
This weekend’s series looms large. Auburn trails the Hogs by two games in the West and packs some offensive firepower that functions well in their ballpark. A series loss isn’t the end of the world with the baseline goal of preventing a sweep.
But a series win would do wonders. The Razorbacks need wins this weekend to improve their underperforming RPI (#29) due to a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks 255th in the country. Playing the instate schools is great for several reasons but all those games against UCA, UALR, UAPB plus a lesser early season schedule is holding the Hogs back RPI wise despite playing in the SEC.
For reference, Auburn is currently #4 in the D1Baseball.com RPI. Wins at the intimate Plainsman Park this weekend will go a long way towards postseason seeding and an SEC West championship. The Hogs are not a lock to host without some RPI friendly wins down the stretch.
But that’s not the end of the world either. The Razorbacks have advanced to Omaha without hosting and have failed to advance when hosting. Those same Missouri State Bears from last night knocked the Hogs out in the regional round in 2017 in Fayetteville.
As of today, D1Baseball.com doesn’t have the Hogs as top 8 seed. They do have Auburn (#6) and Texas A&M (#7) with the Hogs as the #9 seed. This is more for the fans with three weeks to play but the pecking order does show the Razorbacks have a lot of say so in where they end up this postseason. Starting this weekend.
Everyone involved with the Razorbacks would welcome an offensive uprising. From the coaches to the players to the fans. But this year’s version has shown they can pitch and defend their way into a series win. Coach Van Horn’s team will be a much better version of themselves this weekend compared to what we saw on Tuesday night versus Missouri State. Does that equate to win(s)? Time will tell and Auburn may have something to say about that.
I think we can all agree there is no time like the present for the Hogs to start playing their best baseball.
So don’t give up just yet, Arkansas baseball fans. Once things start to go really right, at the right time, you may find all spots on the bandwagon already taken.
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