On-Air Questioning of Hagen’s Arm Raises Potentially Unfounded Concerns

Dave Neal, Hagen Smith, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Kentucky, SEC Tournament
photo credit: SEC Network / Arkansas Athletics

As expected, Hagen Smith’s stint in the SEC Tournament was short. The nature of the Arkansas ace’s outing, though, has raised some questions.

The left-hander picked up his first loss of the season, pitching just two innings and allowing two runs in the No. 5 Razorbacks’ 9-6 loss to No. 2 Kentucky that knocked them out of the event in Hoover, Ala.

It’s not that Smith necessarily pitched poorly — both runs were unearned and he still had four strikeouts — but rather an observation made by the SEC Network announcers calling the game on television that may concern Arkansas baseball fans.

Play-by-play man Dave Neal and analyst Chris Burke each commented multiple times in the second inning about a noticeable drop in Smith’s velocity. That talk only ramped up when it became clear he wouldn’t return for the third inning.

Not surprisingly, it was the first thing they asked Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn during his in-game interview. The veteran coach clearly wasn’t as talkative as usual, but that might have been because of how bad his team was playing at the time.

“He’s fine,” Van Horn told SEC Network. “Just wanted to get him out there, get him a start. Go from there.”

That’s in line with what he said before the game in interviews with both the SEC Network and Phil Elson on the UA’s pregame radio show. He reiterated it again in his postgame press conference, revealing the plan was for him to throw “35, 40 pitches, two to three innings, max.”

Sure enough, Smith finished with 36 pitches in two innings — his fewest pitches this season. A pair of errors, including one of his own on a failed pickoff, directly led to Kentucky scoring a couple of runs, so they were unearned. Both of the hits he allowed were probably plays that should have been made by Peyton Stovall and Wehiwa Aloy, too.

“We thought, ‘Hey, that’s enough,’” Van Horn said. “So give him a little opportunity to have a couple days’ rest more than normal leading into next weekend. But Hagen is Hagen. He’s good. He’ll be ready to go.”

If that’s not enough to dispel any lingering concerns, let’s revisit the comments by Neal and Burke about Smith’s velocity.

It’s unclear exactly where they were getting their data. They might have been looking at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium’s scoreboard, which has been consistently slower — sometimes significantly slower — compared to actual velocities. Best of Arkansas Sports was able to confirm that through multiple conversations with people in attendance, plus the scoreboard can be seen showing 89 mph at the same time as the broadcast displayed 94 mph on Ryan Nicholson’s fourth-inning home run.

We also reached out to an ESPN producer to ask if the broadcast’s radar gun was linked up to the stadium’s TrackMan system, but have not yet received a response.

If the broadcast’s radar gun is accurate, then Neal and Burke were incorrect in their statement that the hardest pitch Smith threw was 94 mph, as he struck out Nick Lopez on a 96 mph heater for the second out of the first inning. 

His second strikeout came on an 85 mph slider, so their assessment that his slider velocity was also down 3-4 mph doesn’t seem to match the velocity shown on the broadcast.

It didn’t help that the cameras stayed on Smith well after he was out of the game, leading to the broadcast catching him having a conversation with pitching coach Matt Hobbs before walking into the dugout tunnel.

Of course, they also showed him back in the dugout with his team the next half inning and throughout the rest of the game, while never catching him talking to a trainer.

Given the scars of previous aces going down before the season, it’s understandable that fans would be worried while watching and listening to the SEC Network broadcast, but there doesn’t seem to be an issue.

That’s great news for Arkansas because Smith has been incredible this year and is vital to its postseason success. Already named the SEC Pitcher of the Year and the favorite to win National Pitcher of the Year, he’ll enter the NCAA Tournament with a minuscule 1.48 ERA and is on track to break the NCAA record with 17.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

Homers Rule the Day

Even though the Hoover Met is a large ballpark, the ball was flying out of it Thursday morning. Arkansas and Kentucky hit three home runs apiece and each had one player with two long balls.

All three home runs hit by the Wildcats were no-doubters, traveling 420-plus feet. Ryan Nicholson hit a solo shot in the fourth and then Ryan Waldschmidt – their top hitter – went yard in the fifth and seventh innings.

The last of those three was the dagger, as it immediately followed an error and put Kentucky back up by four after the Razorbacks had cut UK’s deficit to 6-4 in the sixth.

That sixth-inning rally by Arkansas was capped by a two-out three-run blast by Peyton Holt, who also hit a solo home run in his next at-bat in the eighth.

“The first one was just a two-strike fastball in,” Holt said. “They have been working me away soft, hard in all weekend. I finally just cheated it a little bit and caught it up front. Then the next one was just a slider he left over the middle of the plate. With our approach with a guy like that, we’re trying to stay hard through the middle, and I just kind of caught it up front.”

Five of Holt’s six home runs this season have come against SEC opponents.

Jared Sprague-Lott hit the other homer for the Razorbacks, but it came with two outs in the ninth and was a solo shot.

Perhaps the biggest play of the day, though, came on the home run that wasn’t. Ben McLaughlin crushed a deep fly to center to start the second inning, only for Kentucky center fielder Nolan McCarthy to jump up and rob it. Nick Mingione, the Wildcats’ head coach, later revealed that McCarthy told him it was the first time he’d ever made a play like that.

Had it cleared the fence, it could have changed the complexion of the game, as Kentucky starter Trey Pooser ended up throwing five scoreless innings before Arkansas got to the Wildcats’ bullpen.

More Defensive Miscues

It would be hard to draw up a worse start than what Arkansas baseball experienced against Kentucky on Thursday.

After issuing a leadoff walk in the first inning, Hagen Smith tried a quick pickoff move and threw wide to first, allowing Ryan Waldschmidt to take second.

Emilien Pitre followed with a low line drive that got by Peyton Stovall. It was ruled a single, but it was a ball Stovall should have probably snagged for an out. Instead, it put runners on the corners, allowing Kentucky to dial up a squeeze bunt that drove in the first run.

“I think it was jammed, and Peyton pretty much lost it in the crowd,” Van Horn said. “Who knows where it would have gone if we catch that ball as far as getting through that inning. But we didn’t.”

The Wildcats added another when Pitre stole third and catcher Hudson White’s throw got by Jared Sprague-Lott, allowing him to score on the error.

Arkansas’ third error of the game came in the seventh inning when Brady Tygart didn’t field a grounder cleanly. It was a mistake that clearly frustrated Van Horn.

“Ball’s hit off the end of the bat, spinning like a top, you don’t field it with one hand, you field it with two,” Van Horn said. “You don’t run away from it. Ball spun right out of his glove. When you’re older, you know that.”

It was just the second time this season that Arkansas committed at least three errors in a game this season, with the other being a four-error game against Michigan way back on Feb. 25.

Making it more surprising was the fact that the Razorbacks also had two errors in Wednesday’s loss to South Carolina, with Stovall booting a ground ball and Jake Faherty throwing away a pickoff attempt.

The Razorbacks came to Hoover with a .982 fielding percentage, which ranked fourth nationally.

Unique Bullpen Usage

When Hagen Smith was removed after just two innings, Arkansas baseball filled the remaining six innings with four pitchers who’ve been used as starters this year.

Right-hander Gage Wood was first up and looked good for a couple of innings, but gave up hits to the last four batters he faced. He ended up being charged with four earned runs in 2 2/3 innings.

The Razorbacks turned to right-hander Will McEntire for the final out of the fifth and he got the job done in five pitches, getting ahead of Mitchell Daly 0-2 before inducing a fly out to center.

The most notable appearance was by Brady Tygart, as the right-hander was left off the 27-man roster for the Texas A&M series to give him some rest after struggling in back-to-back starts.

He needed only 10 pitches to retire the Wildcats in order in the sixth, but things unraveled for him when he came back out in the seventh. The aforementioned error started the inning and then he hung an 0-2 breaking ball to Ryan Waldschmidt, which was crushed for a two-run homer. Van Horn had seen enough when Tygart walked and plunked the next two batters.

“Tygart’s first inning, man, he looked really good, breaking ball going, spotting his fastball down, had a little movement, a little sink,” Van Horn said.

Finally, left-hander Mason Molina closed it out with two nearly perfect innings. The only batter to reach against the Texas Tech transfer was Grant Smith, who hit a two-out single in an 0-2 count in the eighth.

It was an encouraging encore to his three perfect innings that closed out the SEC West-clinching win at Texas A&M. Since losing his spot in the starting rotation, Molina has retired 15 of 16 batters he’s faced.

“I think my command has been much better,” Molina said. “I’ve just been filling up the zone with strikes with all four pitches, just being able to command my fastball, which is a huge part of how I pitch. So that, and the slider getting a little bit harder has really helped me go at hitters.”

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

With the loss, Arkansas baseball has been eliminated from the SEC Tournament. It will now await its postseason fate during the NCAA Tournament selection show, which will air on ESPN2 at 11 a.m. CT Monday.

Despite losing seven of their final 10 games, the Razorbacks are still expected to earn a top-8 national seed, which would mean hosting a regional and — if they win that — a super regional at Baum-Walker Stadium. That’s good news for Arkansas because it went 33-3 at home this season.

The Razorbacks will be trying to make it back to Omaha for the fourth time in six tries, as they also reached the College World Series in 2018, 2019 and 2022.

Going 0-2 in Hoover isn’t the kiss of death some fans may believe. In fact, the last two times Arkansas went winless in the SEC Tournament, in 2022 and 2012, it bounced back to reach the College World Series semifinals.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • Hagen Smith notched four strikeouts in his two-inning start, bringing his season total to 154. That is one shy of tying, and two shy of breaking, the UA single-season record set by David Walling in 1999.
  • As a staff, the Razorbacks will enter the NCAA Tournament with 670 strikeouts. They need only five more to break the school’s single-season record set just two years ago by the 2022 team.
  • With a sixth-inning walk, Ben McLaughlin tied the Dave Van Horn-era single-season record of 50 walks, matching Jake Dugger’s total in 2004 and Andrew Benintendi’s total in 2015. They are tied for sixth on the all-time UA list, with Scott Loseke holding the record of 68 set in 1983.
  • He went just 1 for 5, but Hudson White’s two-out single in the third extended his hitting streak to 13 games. That is one shy of matching a streak by Wehiwa Aloy for the longest on the team this year.
  • Peyton Stovall notched another multi-hit game by going 2 for 4 with a pair of singles and a walk. He has nearly twice as many multi-hit games (19) as hitless games (10) this season, helping him compile a .349 batting average.

Arkansas vs Kentucky Highlights (SEC Tournament)

Postgame Interviews

Arkansas vs Kentucky Box Score (SEC Tournament)

Updated SEC Tournament Bracket


More coverage of Arkansas baseball and the SEC Tournament from BoAS…

Facebook Comments