Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Monke makes strong closing argument in fall finale
Arkansas pitcher Caden Monke delivers to the plate Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, during practice at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — A wind chill of 43 degrees didn’t cool off Arkansas pitcher Caden Monke on Saturday.
The sophomore left hander struck out eight batters in 3 2/3 scoreless innings and paced his Red team to a 7-0 victory over the Black team in Game 6 of the Razorbacks’ fall intrasquad series at Baum-Walker Stadium.
The Red team won the best-of-seven series 4-2.
“He was outstanding today,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He was really mixing his pitches, using his fastball, which cuts and sinks. His secondary pitches were really good. He got them swinging at pitches out of the zone they had trouble recognizing.
“I thought he did a great job. When his team scores a couple runs, he goes out and strikes out the side and got them back in the dugout, then they scored (some) more for him.”
Monke allowed consecutive hits by Jacob Nesbit and Christian Franklin to lead off the bottom of the first inning, but retired the next eight batters, including seven straight by strikeout. It was a strong bounce-back performance for Monke, who recorded only three outs in a start in Game 1 of the series Oct. 16.
“I feel like it was pretty much a night-and-day difference between last Friday and today,” Monke said. “I fixed some rotational stuff in the bullpen this week and everything played out well.”
Monke allowed one base runner after Franklin’s first-inning hit Saturday. Ethan Bates walked on a full-count pitch with two outs in the fourth inning, and Monke was replaced due to his pitch count.
Between Franklin’s and Bates’ at-bats, Monke looked almost un-hittable. He said he recorded a strike three on each of his pitches, notably a breaking pitch that Jalen Battles chased in the dirt to end the first inning, and Bates repeated to start the second.
Third baseman Brady Slavens began a 5-3 double play to settle down Monke in the first inning. Slavens fielded a ground ball off the bat of Cayden Wallace, stepped on third base to force out Nesbit and threw across the diamond to retire Wallace.
“That was huge,” Monke said. “Things can easily unwind right there and then one pitch can change everything.
“That’s definitely a tough play. It was a slower-hit ball with a pretty fast runner, so he had to get there quick and get rid of it. It was impressive.”
Monke hoped he made a strong closing argument to be considered as a starter in the spring.
“You always want to go out and do well,” Monke said, “so to end the fall on a good note like I did today, I think that’s a big confidence booster to move on to everything and see how everything plays out.”
With a north wind that blew to the outfield, it was a difficult day to play. It was comparable to many of the early-season games the Razorbacks play at home in February and March.
“When you were out there throwing it didn’t really feel that bad and didn’t really affect you,” Monke said. “The big part was moving around between innings; you’ve got to get somewhat of a routine. Between innings I really didn’t stop moving around. I never really sat down and was pacing through the dugout. That’s the key for me to be able to handle the colder weather.”
While Monke shined, Black team starter Connor Noland struggled in a 2 1/3-inning outing. Noland allowed seven hits — mostly on hard line drives — and gave up four earned runs.
The Red team also scored an unearned run with Noland on the mound. Catcher Casey Opitz singled to lead off the second inning and scored when the right fielder Wallace misplayed Zack Gregory’s single in the next at-bat, which allowed Opitz to score from first base.
Gregory advanced to third on a passed ball by Black catcher Charlie Welch, and scored on Zac White’s RBI single to give the Red team a 2-0 lead.
The Red team added four more runs in the third inning. Braydon Webb’s two-run home run scored Robert Moore, who singled to lead off the inning. Opitz drove home two more in the inning following singles by Matt Goodheart and Slavens.
Opitz finished the scrimmage 3-for-4 to improve his batting average to .350 in the series.
“He had a really good series offensively,” Van Horn said. “He hit balls all over the park.
“Honestly, when you have a catcher with that kind of experience and then he hits like he did in this series, that really was a big swing.”
Webb’s home run was his second of the series. He also homered against Noland in Game 1 and finished the six scrimmages with a .412 average.
On Saturday, Webb drove a first-pitch curveball to the alley in left-center field.
“Connor is a good mix guy and he was getting a lot of people out on his curveball, so I just told myself to stay back and I got a ball up, and I got a good barrel on it,” Webb said.
The Red team capped its scoring in the sixth inning. Michael Brooks reached first base on a passed ball after striking out against Corey Spain, then advanced on a Jackson Cobb walk, a Spain wild pitch and a sacrifice fly by Moore.
Freshman right hander Nate Wohlgemuth pitched two strong innings of relief for the Black team. Wohlgemuth, who missed around a month of fall practice due to quarantine and an ankle injury, worked around one hit and struck out two batters.
Wohlgemuth was one of the Razorbacks’ most-heralded signees in the high school class of 2020. He was considered a top 100 overall prospect by Baseball America out of Owasso (Okla.) High School.
Zebulon Vermillion, who struggled in a Game 2 start, closed the scrimmage for the Red team and needed just nine pitches to retire the final three batters. Vermillion appeared to be settling in as the Razorbacks’ closer when the 2020 season was suspended.
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