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.
Diamond Hogs Notebook: McEntire gem a week in the making, 5 hole a sweet spot
Arkansas pitcher Will McEntire (41) celebrates with catcher Hudson Polk after recording the final out of a 6-1 victory over Louisiana Tech on Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Fayetteville. McEntire pitched a complete game.
FAYETTEVILLE — A scary moment turned into a light-bulb moment for Arkansas pitcher Will McEntire and his coaches last weekend.
As the right-handed McEntire pitched his fifth and final inning against Wright State last Saturday, a ball was hit 104 mph off the bat, bounced once and hit just below the inner part of his left knee. He was checked by Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs and trainer Corey Wood, and remained in the game after throwing three warm-up pitches.
“I’m standing off to the left of the mound and he throws the three best pitches from my vantage point that he’s thrown in the game,” Hobbs said. “Then he goes out and it’s like punch out, punch out right away.
“All of a sudden the cutter’s got some teeth to it. He located his fastball and I said to him after he came out, ‘It was the first time you looked like yourself all season.’”
When McEntire and Hobbs met the next morning, McEntire asked if Hobbs and his group of analysts could determine whether his leg kick was lower after he was hit by the comebacker.
“Getting hit in the knee didn’t allow him to get his leg up as high because it hurt too much,” Hobbs said. “We go back through it and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I finally felt like I could get over my front side because I couldn’t lift my leg as high.’
“Pitching is weird. It’s just a bunch of series of timing mechanisms.”
There was no way to predict McEntire’s gem Saturday — a 97-pitch complete game during the Razorbacks’ 6-1 victory over Louisiana Tech at Baum-Walker Stadium — but Hobbs said he saw a better pitcher in the week leading up to the game.
“His bullpen this week was awesome,” Hobbs said. “I watched his catch play pretty much every day that he threw this week, too, and he was throwing the ball where he wanted to. The cutter’s got teeth and the curveball is better, the changeup has got some action and the fastball has got cut again that he needs it to have.
“It sounds crazy, but ever since he’s been hit in the knee it’s been way better.”
McEntire looked Saturday like the pitcher who emerged as one of the Razorbacks’ best last postseason. His nine innings eclipsed his previous high of seven innings against Auburn at the College World Series last June. His pitch total of 97 against Louisiana Tech was one less than the 98 he threw against Auburn.
“When you draw up what a Will McEntire outing is supposed to look like, that’s kind of it,” Hobbs said. “He throws strikes, he gets ahead — he forced them to hit what he wanted them to hit and he was fantastic.”
McEntire has shown improvement since he struggled in a start against TCU and a relief outing against Grambling State in the first week of the season. He did not allow an earned run during his 3-hit, 1-walk, 6-strikeout performance against Louisiana Tech, which helped to offset those early performances on his stat line.
He lowered his ERA from 6.17 to 3.48, his WHIP from 2.23 to 1.45, and his opposing batting average from .365 to .268.
Hobbs and McEntire were quick to credit catcher Hudson Polk, who caught McEntire for the second consecutive week.
“He’s getting underneath those cutters and the curveballs and the changeups,” Hobbs said. “Will's fastball is usually a pitch that he doesn't have to fight for on the bottom [of the strike zone] as much, but Will threw some heaters today that had some tilt because of his delivery change. [Polk] did a great job at the bottom of the zone dominating that area for us, and he called a good game today.”
It has not mattered who Arkansas has batted fifth in the lineup this season. They have all had success.
The Razorbacks’ No. 5 hitters have a .549 batting average and .617 on-base percentage through 14 games. The five-hole hitter has had at least one hit and scored one run in each game.
Overall the No. 5 hitter has produced 19 runs, 20 RBI, 8 home runs, 4 doubles, 5 walks and has been hit by a pitch 4 times.
Jace Bohrofen has manned the five hole a team-high seven times. Jared Wegner, Kendall Diggs and Peyton Stovall have hit fifth in the lineup twice apiece, and Caleb Cali was the five-hole hitter during the second game of the Wright State series last week.
Reese Robinett even got a hit as a pinch hitter in the five hole during a Feb. 19 game against Oklahoma State.
“Over the years we’ve kind of called the five-hole hitter the sweet spot in the order,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Maybe they forget about you a little bit if you’re not hitting third or fourth, and you can wear them out.”
The fatigue is as much mental as physical, Van Horn said.
“All of a sudden a guy has thrown 11, 12 pitches in the first inning and he’s just faced two guys. I’ve seen that a lot this year,” Van Horn said. “By the time that five-hole guy gets up…maybe [the pitcher is] a little messed up.”
Bohrofen, who has a team-best .442 batting average, has found his most success hitting in the middle of the order. In that position Bohrofen is 13 of 23 with 9 runs, 10 RBI, 5 home runs, 2 doubles, 2 walks and has been hit by a pitch 3 times.
Bohrofen led off the bottom of the fourth inning with a home run Saturday. He has homered in four consecutive games from the five hole. During that time he is 8 for 14 with 5 runs and 7 RBI.
“He’s seeing the ball good,” Van Horn said. “He’s laying off that early-in-the-count, borderline pitch, and if it’s a ball, advantage him. He’s hot right now, so when I see that I’m thinking, ‘Wow, he’s going to hit one hard somewhere.’”
Wegner was the No. 5 hitter for the first two games of the season against Texas and TCU. He went 4 for 7 with 2 runs, 3 RBI and homered as part of a weekend when he earned SEC player of the week.
Diggs went 1 for 3 in each of his starts batting fifth against Oklahoma State and Grambling State. He combined to score three runs in those two games.
Stovall batted fifth in games against Illinois State and Wright State after he returned from a thumb injury earlier this month. He went 6 for 10 with 4 runs and 5 RBI during those games. He homered once and doubled once each time.
“I put Stovall there for a couple of games and he didn’t hardly get out,” Van Horn said. “He was probably mad at me when I stuck him back in the two hole, but I like him there.”
Cali went 2 for 4 with 2 RBI and 1 run in his only game batting fifth. He is batting .185 in all other games.
This weekend’s series against Louisiana Tech are the first of nine games for Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn against teams coached by one of his former assistants.
Louisiana Tech coach Lane Burroughs worked with Van Horn between the 1997 and 1998 seasons at Northwestern (La.) State. Van Horn was hired in December 1997 to coach at Nebraska.
Other former Van Horn assistants scheduled to come to Fayetteville are Andy Sawyers (Southeast Missouri State), Chris Curry (Arkansas-Little Rock) and Tony Vitello (Tennessee) — all by mid-April.
Curry was a volunteer coach for the Razorbacks from 2009-10 and Vitello was the recruiting coordinator and hitting coach from 2014-17.
Sawyers played for Van Horn at Nebraska and was the Cornhuskers’ volunteer coach in 2000.
• Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson was back for Saturday’s game after missing the series opener to attend the funeral for an uncle. Thompson’s brother, Baylor head coach Mitch Thompson, also missed his team’s game Friday.
• Peyton Stovall and Jared Wegner each extended their hitting streaks to seven games. Stovall, who grew up in Haughton, La., went 3 for 4 and was a home run shy of hitting for the cycle.
• Louisiana Tech third baseman Ethan Bates is 0 for 7 and has walked once during the first two games of the series. Bates played for the Razorbacks in 2021 and grew up in Hot Springs.
• Saturday's game lasted 2 hours, 7 minutes — the shortest game time for the Razorbacks this year.
• The last Arkansas pitcher to throw a complete game of exactly nine innings was Keaton McKinney at Alabama in 2015. Between that game and Saturday's, the Razorbacks had a 10-inning complete game by Dominic Taccolini at Kentucky in 2016, and three 7-inning complete games by Zach Jackson at Kentucky in 2016, Trevor Stephan at Tennessee in 2017 and Kacey Murphy against Florida at the 2017 SEC Tournament.
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