Wed May 15, 2024

By Lance Hawley

Arkansas Heads to College Station this Weekend
By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE -- No. 2 Arkansas is changing its starting rotation ahead of the very important series against No. 5 Texas A&M.

Arkansas (42-10, 19-8) will insert Gage Wood into the rotation pitching in the second game. Texas A&M (42-10, 17-10) will settle the SEC West title this weekend in College Station. The Razorbacks need one win in the three-game series to take the West title. Dave Van Horn talked about the importance of the series.

"Well, it makes it a little more interesting I guess," Van Horn said. "It’s the two teams at the top playing each other last day. It’s difficult we’re on the road, playing in a really difficult place to win if you are the visiting team and they’ve proved that again this year with 30-plus (home) wins I think. I think it’s good for our team. I made the comment over a week ago to our players that having the opportunity to play Miss. State and play Texas A&M it’s good for us in the long run as far as playing great competition, tough venue and the two teams that are probably the hottest teams in our league, at least our division at this time. And there won’t be anything coming down the road probably that we haven’t seen after this."

Van Horn talked more about the rotation and what he plans to do with that third spot.

"Yeah, (Hagen) Smith will go first, Gage Wood will go second and we’ll leave the third game TBA," Van Horn said.

Wood, who is a sophomore from Batesville, is 3-1 on the season with an earned run average of 3.03. Wood has appeared in 19 games with one start (midweek against Missouri State). He has pitched 29.2 innings, 44 strikeouts and seven walks.

Brady Tygart and Mason Molina have held down those two spots this season following Smith. But both have struggled in recent weeks. Both were knocked out very early last weekend against Mississippi State. Tygart (4-3, 3.86) has appeared in 13 games and all were starts. He has worked 58.1 innings striking out 65 and walking 35. Molina (3-2, 4.44) has appeared in 12 games, once again all starts. He has pitched 50.2 innings with 72 strikeouts and 32 free passes. Could either Tygart or Molina be an option for the third game of this series?

"Could be an option there, yeah, definitely," Van Horn said.

Tygart's velo is down and Van Horn was asked if an injury is involved?

"We’ve had him looked at and as of right now we’re told everything’s clean, so we might just give him some time off," Van Horn said.

Is Molina an option to come out of the bullpen since he has been a starter in every appearance at Arkansas?

"I don’t know," Van Horn said. "I’m confident in him. When he’s pitching good, I’m very confident in him. Now, when you bring somebody out of the pen, you’ve got something down there hot right behind him. He’s left, maybe you’ve got a right-hander, or if it doesn’t go good, you go to the next guy. When you start a guy, it’s different. If we bring him out of the pen and he pitches well, he’ll stay in there and grab that starting job again. He’s just got to go out and throw the ball better. That’s obvious. I think that’s a good spot for him and he needs to embrace it and get after it."

Smith is nearing the strikeout record at Arkansas. Smith (9-0, 1.65) has an incredible 136 strikeouts in just 71 innings. Van Horn talked about how Smith has handled the pressure while approaching the record.

"I wouldn’t even know he was under any pressure the way he acts," Van Horn said. "He’s a professional, he uses this facility better than anyone. He’s just doing his work. All he does is come in, do his thing, doesn’t get uptight about things. The progress he’s made physically and mentally is amazing. I’ve forgot he was that close to it until you brought it up and I saw the other guy break it, Nick Schmidt. So, when he breaks it, good for him. Hopefully in a couple years I have a guy that runs through and breaks his record."

As with most locations this time of year the rainy weather could impact this series. As of right now, Thursday's game is set for 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Friday night's game starts at 7 and Saturday afternoon 2 p.m.. Both Friday and Saturday are set to be on the SEC Network.

"I mean, we’re going to leave here in a little while, head to College Station, check in a hotel and workout on the field," Van Horn said. "It’s supposed to be really nice, tomorrow a lot of chance of rain early, it’ll break up and more of a chance of it coming in. Obviously we’re not going to start the game, they don’t want to start the game — they don’t want to start the game with (Ryan Prager) going either if we’re only going to play an inning and two tomorrow or the next day or whatever. It was the same two weeks ago at Kentucky, seems like it was that way at South Carolina. We’ll just go do what they tell us to do and we’ll be smart about it. The weather looks pretty good on Friday, really good on Saturday. The way the new rules read, we could play on Sunday now."

The Aggies have one of the best trios in the country at the plate. Braden Montgomery is hitting .333 with 24 home runs and knocked in 77 runs. Gavin Grahovac has 18 round trippers, 57 runs knocked in and hitting .327. Jace LaViolette has 27 home runs, plated 69 runners and a batting average of .320. Van Horn is obviously impressed with the three.

"“Those guys are incredible," Van Horn said. "Montgomery, obviously, he was a transfer from Stanford. We really tried to get him. We wanted him. Hated to see him go there. We recruited him out of high school. Not that we were in the mix when we visited Standford. Grahovac has been one of the best freshmen in the country, offensively. He is a threat. Big time. He hits leadoff for them. Grahovac is an animal. You could go on and on about this lineup. LaViolette is pretty darn good himself. He’s only a sophomore. He’s powerful. He may be the best outfielder in the league. Who knows? Him and Montgomery are probably both First-Team All-SEC. Hard to get one, much less two, in your outfield. They’re hitting .308 as a team, overall. I might not sure exactly what it is in league play. Probably pretty close. They’ve got over 100 home runs. 110, 115 home runs. They’re never out of the game. You have to pitch to them good until the last out.”

Ryan Prager is their ace on the mound. He is 8-1 on the season with a 2.71 earned run average. He has pitched 69.2 innings, struck out 95 and allowed just 12 walks. Van Horn mentioned Prager when he was asked about needing just one win to take the SEC West.

“I didn’t even know that," Van Horn said. "Thanks for letting me know. Appreciate it. Haven’t talked to the team about it, haven’t brought it up one time. We’re just going to go play. We want to win the series. That’s our goal, at a minimum. The chips fall where they may where we end up. We’re going to try everything we can to win game 1. If we don’t, we’ll do the same in game 2 and game 3. We’ve been in this position before. We’ve been in this position before where it went good and we’ve been in this position before where it didn’t go well. You just play.

"Baseball is an interesting game. You never know how it’s going to go. When you don’t play every day. When you play professional baseball, you get a feel. You might take Tuesday off or Monday off. But you’re playing the other six days. This time of the year, you’re playing on the weekend. You don’t play during the week, you play on the weekend. It’s kind of a strange feeling. It’s not like you’re starting over. You’re a little more rested. But you’re just hoping that you can just kick it into gear if you finish strong in the previous weekend. That’s easier said than done. Especially when you’re facing a guy like Prager in a team like Texas A&M. To me, I don’t want the players to get all uptight about it. Let’s just go play and play well. If we play well, we have a chance to win. If we don’t, we won’t.”

As far as the seeding for the upcoming SEC Tournament, Kentucky (37-11, 20-7) sits atop the SEC East and overall in the league. Tennessee (43-10, 19-8) is on their heels as well as Arkansas and Texas A&M in the mix. 

Photos Courtesy of Craven Whitlow CW3 Sports Action