South Carolina struggles against one of country’s top pitchers, loses to Arkansas

If he grew seven inches, he’d be like Randy Johnson.

It’s unclear if Arkansas starting pitcher Hagen Smith is trying to replicate the Big Unit by going for the intimidator look — but, well, it’s flawless. Smith is a 6-foot-3, 225-pound flame-throwing left-hander with a smidge of facial hair and flowing brown locks that bob with every motion.

He pitches with no undershirt, half his jersey unbuttoned (Tony Montana style) and enough moisture on his body that one has to wonder if he takes a shower between innings.

Worst of all for opponents: He is arguably the best pitcher in college baseball. South Carolina found that out during its 2-1 series-opening loss to the No. 2 Razorbacks on Friday night.

Smith entered the night leading the Southeastern Conference in ERA (1.53), opposing batting average (.1.38), strikeouts (89), hits allowed (22) ... and on and on. The dude has faced the best hitters in college baseball all year and neutralized them. He’s currently a Top 10 MLB Draft prospect and will be one of the first pitchers off the board.

No. 20 South Carolina felt his wrath on Friday.

Smith hurled a half-dozen brilliant innings, allowing just one run and two hits while fanning 11 Gamecocks. And, still, there were moment where it felt like South Carolina had him on the ropes, one swing away from sending the best pitcher in the country (back?) to the showers.

The junior lefty walked five batters and hit another, which meant South Carolina had baserunners and opportunities. The Gamecocks stranded a pair in the fourth. An inning later, Talmadge LeCroy and Will Tippett walked and USC took a lead on a Parker Noland infield groundout. But the big hit never came. The Razorbacks intentionally walked Ethan Petry, and Dalton Reeves struck out with the bases loaded.

Hope vanquished.

Frustration lingered all night. The fans at Founders Park and South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston were irate over the calls made by home-plate umpire Mark Winters for hours. It crescendoed in the ninth inning, when Kingston went out to argue a hit-by-pitch call, which felt like Kingston just needing a reason to go speak his mind. He hurried up to Winters and was ejected in five seconds.

South Carolina wasn’t supposed to win on Friday. Just about every team that faces Smith will be underdogs. The fact that the Gamecocks got to the Razorbacks’ bullpen still in contention should be considered a win in it of itself.

For that, give credit to the South Carolina pitching staff.

The Gamecocks had a revamped plan for their pitching staff this week — start ace Eli Jones on Saturday to give the bullpen a little rest in between Friday and Sunday. Perhaps the fact that Smith was on the bump Friday also influenced that decision.

Regardless, the plan got messed up before first pitch. Because of rain in the forecast for Sunday, South Carolina and Arkansas will play a doubleheader on Saturday. Goodbye, bullpen rest.

Friday starter Roman Kimball came out of the game with one out in the third inning. It’s unclear if an injury played a part in his early exit — a trainer was looking at him a few batters before he exited.

But Kimball didn’t allow a run. Reliever Ty Good was spectacular until the sixth, when the command issues sprung up. The Gamecocks brought in Chris Veach on cleanup duty, but it was an impossible task. One Arkansas run scored on a wild pitch. The next scored on a sac fly.

With Smith on the mound, that was enough.