Hogs Needed More Temper Tantrums from Cole Messina in Gut-Wrenching Loss

Cole Messina, South Carolina baseball, Arkansas vs South Carolina, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: SEC Network

Every time he was retired by Arkansas at the SEC Tournament on Wednesday, Cole Messina threw a tantrum.

Unfortunately for the No. 5 Razorbacks, that happened only once — on a called third strike in the seventh inning — and it was sandwiched between a pair of two-run homers that helped South Carolina to a 6-5 victory on Day 2 of the event in Hoover, Ala.

The final blow was a 419-foot blast to center off Arkansas closer Gabe Gaeckle that actually gave the Wildcats a two-run lead in the top of the ninth.

“That guy has a really, really good fastball and I was sitting dead red fastball because his fastball is so good,” Messina told the SEC Network. “He hung a slider and I thought I took a good swing, realized I got it and was super excited. It was cool.”

The Razorbacks managed to score one in the final frame, but they stranded the tying run on third and suffered a rare one-run loss, dropping to 10-4 in such games.

Most of the damage was done by the Gamecocks’ slugger, who hit his 18th and 19th home runs of the season and also had an RBI single earlier in the game. While his teammates went just 5 for 32 (.156) with one RBI, Messina “killed us,” as Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn put it, by finishing 3 for 4 with five RBIs.

“He’s dangerous,” Van Horn said. “When we played them over there earlier in the season, he was the guy that we would not let beat us. As a matter of fact, I know we intentionally walked him in one big situation when the game was on the line we felt like. … He made us pay when we made a mistake.”

Arkansas isn’t the first team Messina has done this to. He’s slashing .329/.457/.705 this season and has been particularly hot of late. He also had three hits with a double and home run against Alabama in Tuesday’s single-elimination game and is now 12 for 19 over his last five games, which includes a series against No. 1 Tennessee.

“We score a lot more runs when he’s hitting,” South Carolina baseball coach Mark Kingston said. “That’s clear. I’m pretty sure if you dug into the stats, and on the days he has good games, I bet we probably win 90 percent of the time; and when he doesn’t, it’s obviously not that high. He’s the heart and soul of our team. And when the heart and soul of your team is playing that well, it just allows everybody else to kind of follow suit.”

Messina’s first home run was also a 419-foot bomb to center, giving South Carolina a 4-2 lead in the fifth. That came off left-hander Parker Coil.

It was right-hander Christian Foutch who struck him out to start the seventh inning, prompting his indignant outburst. However, home plate umpire Scott Cline didn’t deem the argument significant enough to eject him. The Razorbacks probably wish he had because later Messina jumped on the first pitch he saw from Gaeckle for what proved to be the game-winning home run.

Gaeckle has been phenomenal for Arkansas this season, coming in with a minuscule 1.91 ERA. He hadn’t allowed an earned run since April 6, and the freshman also hadn’t given up a home run in 38 2/3 collegiate innings.

“He didn’t get behind the count on the home run ball, he just threw it down the middle,” Van Horn said. “Just a learning experience. He’s young. He’s got great stuff. He’s been really good for us down the stretch. I don’t think there’s anything wrong. I think he just got beat by a good hitter.”

Missed Opportunities for Arkansas Baseball

The Razorbacks did get a trio of RBI hits, which is a decent number compared to some of their other games this season, but they had numerous other opportunities that loomed large considering the final margin in their SEC Tournament opener.

Their other two runs scored on sacrifice flies, as they ultimately went 3 for 11 (.273) with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 runners on base.

“On our side, just kind of a game of missed opportunities,” Van Horn said. “We had a couple of chances to blow it open. Instead of a two-run inning, maybe three or four, one hit away. That was disappointing. Give (South Carolina) credit for pitching out of a couple of jams.”

Perhaps the most disappointing inning for Arkansas was the seventh. Despite it being the only time it scored multiple runs, it could have been much bigger than just a two-run frame.

Will Edmunson started it with a pinch-hit single and Kendall Diggs followed with a single of his own. Peyton Stovall drove in a run with a double over the center fielder’s head and then Hudson White walked to load the bases, still with no outs.

It looks like Ben McLaughlin may give Arkansas its first lead of the game when he hit a ball down the right field line, but Ethan Petry made a spectacular diving catch to turn what could have been a bases-clearing double into just a game-tying sacrifice fly.

The Razorbacks still had runners on the corners with only one out and a chance to take the lead, but Wehiwa Aloy struck out swinging at a pitch out of the zone and Jared Sprague-Lott lined out to left.

“I felt like we’ve done a good job all year of putting ourselves in those positions,” Stovall said. “We’ve just got to be able to get that big hit. And instead of maybe a sac fly or punch in one, maybe getting a huge hit and scoring three or four. Just keep putting ourselves in good position, and eventually it’ll fall.”

Their next chance came in the ninth inning. Needing two runs to extend the game, Arkansas got one with three straight singles by Stovall, White and McLaughlin. That also meant the tying and winning runs were on base.

However, once again, Aloy and Sprague-Lott came up empty, grounding into a fielder’s choice and flying out to center, respectively.

Even though he made things interesting in the ninth, Gamecocks closer Garrett Gainey finished off the Arkansas vs South Carolina matchup with only one run allowed in three innings to earn the win.

“I had to settle myself in and just try to dial it in a little bit,” Gainey said. “Felt like my stuff was kind of getting over the plate more than the other two innings so I was getting hit around a little bit. Being able to focus in and get that last out was huge.”

Signs of Life from Kendall Diggs

His final stat line may not have been too impressive, but Kendall Diggs did show some encouraging signs in his 1-for-5 performance in Arkansas vs South Carolina.

Batting leadoff for the third time in five games, he chased a pitch out of the zone in a full count to start the home half of the first, but then put the ball in play each of his next four at bats.

That included laying down a nearly perfect bunt that rolled foul just before getting to the third base bag and then hitting a single in the seventh, as well as hitting a sharp grounder up the middle to start the ninth inning that would have been a hit had South Carolina not been shifted perfectly.

“I feel good about what I saw,” Van Horn said. “Throw the batting average out is what I tell them. Just go out there and from here until the end of the season, just be a tough out.”

The fact that Diggs did strike out multiple times was a small, but notable sign of improvement because he had struck out at least twice in seven of his previous 10 starts. The hit was also a welcome sign because he had been hitless in his previous 15 at bats, with eight of them ending in a strikeout.

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

With the loss, Arkansas moves into the loser’s bracket of the SEC Tournament and will face 3-seed Kentucky in an elimination game on Thursday. First pitch is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. CT and the game will be televised on SEC Network.

It will be a rematch of the regular-season series in Lexington, Ky., that the Wildcats won by winning two of three games. The Razorbacks took the opener 10-3, but then lost 11-3 and 7-4. That helped Kentucky clinch a share of just its second SEC overall title in school history, which it shared with Tennessee.

“I think we’re all excited,” Arkansas pitcher Christian Foutch said. “We didn’t play our best during that series. After that series, we said we wanted to play them again, so we’re going to go play hard tomorrow.”

Left-hander Hagen Smith (9-0, 1.52 ERA), the SEC Pitcher of the Year, will start for Arkansas, but he’ll likely be on some sort of pitch count as Dave Van Horn gets his team ready for regionals next weekend. He racked up 14 strikeouts and allowed only one run on three hits and two walks against Kentucky on May 3.

Kentucky will start right-hander Trey Pooser (4-1, 4.34 ERA), who has allowed eight earned runs in 11 innings across his last two starts. Those came immediately after an outing against the Razorbacks in which he gave up three runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • One of the bright spots for Arkansas was the performance of right-hander Christian Foutch, who turned in his 10th straight scoreless outing with three strikeouts and only one hit allowed in 1 2/3 innings. It was his longest outing since April 13 against Alabama, which was also the last time he gave up a run. Over that span, he’s allowed 11 hits and two walks while striking out 12 in 9 2/3 scoreless innings. Foutch also touched 101 mph on the SEC Network radar gun on one of his pitches.
  • Arkansas starter Ben Bybee was very inconsistent and lasted only 2 1/3 innings for the Razorbacks. The right-hander gave up two earned runs on three hits and three walks with only one strikeout. He threw 42 total pitches – 14 with only two strikes to the three batters he walked and 28 with only six balls to the other 10 batters he faced.
  • A leadoff walk in the fourth inning was Ben McLaughlin’s 49th free pass of the season. That is tied with Chase Leavitt’s 2009 total for eighth on the UA’s single-season list. It’s also just one shy of tying the Dave Van Horn-era record of 50 set by Jake Dugger in 2004 and matched by Andrew Benintendi in 2015.
  • It took a ninth-inning single, but Hudson White extended his hitting streak to 12 games by going 1 for 3 with a pair of walks. Over that stretch, he’s 17 for 40 (.425) with two doubles, five home runs, seven walks and 14 RBIs. His batting average has risen 54 points to .289.
  • With 11 more on Wednesday, Arkansas pitchers have now racked up 659 strikeouts this season. That moved this year’s team past the 2021 squad (657) for the second most in a single season in school history. The Razorbacks need just 16 more to break the record of 674 set two years ago in 2022.
  • South Carolina star sophomore Ethan Petry is probably tired of facing the Razorbacks. He went 1 for 5 with four strikeouts Wednesday and is now just 2 for 28 with 17 strikeouts in seven career games against Arkansas, despite being a career .360 hitter against everyone else.
  • Four of the Gamecocks’ six runs were scored by players who reached base via free passes — two with walks and two with HBPs. “Free passes, at this time of year when everybody plays good, they’ll come back and get you, and they got us today,” Van Horn said.

Arkansas vs South Carolina Highlights (SEC Tournament)

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Arkansas vs South Carolina Box Score (SEC Tournament)

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