Diamond Hogs turn attention to NCAA Tournament after Thursday loss to Kentucky


Arkansas’ trip to the SEC Tournament was a quick one with two losses in two games and the first blemish on pitching ace Hagen Smith’s record this season.

Third-seeded Kentucky jumped to a 6-0 lead while eliminating second-seeded and mistake-prone Arkansas 9-6 on Thursday morning at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala.

Ryan Waldschmidt hit two of the Wildcats’ three homers in the game while Peyton Holt homered twice for the Razorbacks and teammate Jared Sprague-Lott also hit a solo blast.

“The guys are fired up,” Waldschmidt said. “We had a tough one yesterday )an 11-0 loss to LSU). The bats weren’t really there. This morning we came out facing one of the best arms in the country and got things going early. We were just happy to be here and happy to win this ballgame.”

Arkansas head coach Van Horn praised Kentucky (40-13) while lamenting the fact that Razorbacks (43-14) didn’t take care of its own business.

“Yeah, just really got to give credit to Kentucky,” Van Horn said. “They came out and they played a really good ball game. Obviously made all the plays defensively. Really a couple of really nice plays in the infield. When we made a mistake, they hit it out of the park for the most part.”

The Razorbacks had three errors and a couple of other misplays on Thursday after losing 6-5 to South Carolina on Wednesday when all four top seeds lost.

“We didn’t play a clean game,” Van Horn said. “The first inning we got behind early, threw a ball away and didn’t catch a ball at second, and, you know, bang, we gave ’em two runs. They’re tough to catch because when they get ahead of you, they can do some things.

“But I was proud of our team for battling back.”

Arkansas has lost its last three games and four of its last five contests.

The Razorbacks will wait to hear the 16 NCAA Regional sites announced on Sunday night and the entire 64-team field on Monday morning.

“They will get back and rest up just a little bit,” Van Horn said. “Message out there was, this is where we wanted to be as far as we know we’re going to be in a regional, a really good opportunity to host.

“It’s time to take a step forward. We kind of went backward a couple weeks ago, sideways. We’ve been up and down. We need to make a move and finish this thing up the right way.”

While the Razorbacks scored 11 runs in their two games in Hoover, Van Horn felt like his team didn’t get enough offensively.

“We got to get better,” Van Horn said. “That’s what I just told ’em, we got to get more production up and down the lineup. It’s spotty right now.

“I think guys are trying too hard, trying to do too much instead of just take what they give you sometimes. What I’m talking about is maybe a couple guys going out of the zone, put themselves in a bad count. We got to flip that, take the pitch, work for the next one.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to swing the bats a lot better when we get to the regional.”

Holt believes that is coming.

“I think we’re right where we need to be,” Holt said. “Yeah, we didn’t win both games — either game, but we’re swinging it well. We just got to get those timely hits, just stack runs and stay with our approach.”
• • • 
Smith (9-1, 1.48 ERA) started and pitched the first two innings, allowing a pair of first-inning runs.

He gave up two hits, walked one, fanned four and had an errant pick of throw while throwing 36 pitches, 21 for strikes.

Van Horn stated he had planned a short stint for Smith regardless of how he was pitching.

“Yeah, I think probably a little amped up, leaving some things up, fastball up,” Van Horn said. “Just not real sharp. I think he got a little frustrated.

“But that’s about what we wanted him to throw right there, 35, 40 pitches, two to three innings, max. And we thought, hey, that’s enough. So give him a little opportunity to have a couple days’ rest more than normal leading into next weekend.

“But, yeah, Hagen is Hagen. He’s good. He’ll be ready to go.”
• • •
Only two of those six early runs came against Smith, but Kentucky prepared for him in big way after he fanned 14 batters in a game against the Wildcats earlier this season.

Wildcats head coach Nick Mingione, whose team had just one hit while being blanked 11-0 by LSU on Wednesday, issued an early morning message to his squad on Thursday.

“We just challenged them this morning. Mingione said. “We started watching the opposing pitcher at 6:50 this morning, and then at 7 o’clock we met as a team. We challenged ’em.

“This team has done what it’s done all year. Seems like every time we challenge ’em, they respond. What we did was we actually had all the guys that faced him last time stand up in front of the team, and we basically told them that this guy has sat out there, Hagen Smith, for 14 straight weeks and basically has dominated everybody he’s played.

“And we told ’em that life and the game of baseball is about making adjustments. And we challenged them. And those guys that faced him, they had to use their man voice and tell our team what they were going to do different today than they did last time.

“Because you guys know this, you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again, expecting a different result, what’s that called? Insanity, right?

“So we’re like: We’re not doing that. We might strike out again, but we’re not going to strike out and get out the same way we did last time.

“We actually paired a pitcher up with ’em, and that was their battle buddy, and we made them tell ’em what exactly we were going to done. And we got ’em face-to-face at 7 o’clock this morning. And we had some stare-downs going on. It was awesome.

“And they responded. They were digging it. And I’m like, man, it’s just a special team. I mean, for us to challenge ’em at 7 o’clock this morning, they were wide awake, and I thought they responded to it.”

Waldschmidt certainly did with a solo homer off Gage Wood that put Kentucky up 4-0 in the fifth and a two-run blast in the seventh off Brady Tygart after Arkansas had cut its deficit to 6-4.

“The inning that killed us was probably the bottom of the 7th,” Van Horn said. “Kind of ran the momentum back over to them, and we found ourself back down five.”

“The guys are fired up,” Waldschmidt said. “We had a tough one yesterday. The bats weren’t really there. This morning we came out facing one of the best arms in the country and got things going early. We were just happy to be here and happy to win this ballgame.”

Smith was followed into the game by Wood, Will McEntire, Tygart and Mason Molina.

Molina looked the sharpest of the five pitchers in his second relief appearance after 12 starts.

“I think it was a really good thing for me,”Molina said of going to the bullpen. “It allowed me to reset and not overthink things.

“So that was something we were talking about over the last weeks, just, you know, I was overthinking things and I was trying to be too fine, and now I really don’t have the luxury of thinking. It’s just kind of get hot, go in the game and let your stuff work.

“So I think if I end up starting at some point again, whether that’s up to them or not, it would be — I would try to transfer that over as much as I can.”

Molina noted he would be ready to start or relieve in next week’s NCAA Tournament.

“Yeah, I’m going to throw where I’m needed,” Molina said. That’s up for them to decide, and I’m just going to go out there and pitch to the best of my ability wherever they want me.

Molina noted the difference in his performance lately.

“…I think my command has been much better 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,” Molina said. “So that, and the slider getting a little bit harder has really helped me go at hitters.”

Arkansas looked lifeless for the first five innings against Kentucky starting pitcher Trey Pooser (5-1), who left the game with the six-run advantage.

The Razorbacks came to life and jumped on Wildcats reliever Jackson Nove for four runs in the top of the sixth with Holt’s three-run homer cutting it to 6-4.

The rally began with one out when Peyton Stovall and Jared Sprague-Lott singled and Ben McLaughlin walked to load the bases.

Wehiwa Aloy’s fielder’s choice got the first run home and then Holt’s fifth home run of the year got Arkansas back in the game.

Holt would add a second homer, his sixth of the season, in the eighth an Sprague-Lott added a solo in the ninth to cap the scoring.

“…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.

“And then the next one was just a slider he left over the middle of the plate. And 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.”

Photo courtesy of Razorback Communications

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