Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Pitching duo right formula as Hogs open SEC play with win
Arkansas starter Hunter Hollan delivers a pitch Friday, March 17, 2023, during the first inning of the Razorbacks’ 7-2 win over Auburn at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas’ pitching switcharoo paid immediate dividends Friday with the Razorbacks’ 7-2 win over Auburn in an SEC opener before an announced crowd of 9,276 at Baum-Walker Stadium.
The No. 6 Razorbacks (16-2) won their 11th consecutive game with normal Sunday starter Hunter Hollan (4-0) pitching on short rest and staff ace Hagen Smith providing three shutout innings and his first save after winning his past three Friday starts.
Brady Slavens provided the big blow, a three-run homer against lefty Tommy Vail (2-1) in the fourth inning that touched off a five-run uprising to overcome Auburn’s early 2-0 lead.
Jared Wegner extended his hitting streak to 11 games and went 2 for 3 to lead the Razorbacks’ eight-hit attack. The Tigers (13-4-1), who came in hitting .318, managed six hits against the two Arkansas lefties.
Hollan said he got an indication the pitching change was in the works when he was pulled by pitching Coach Matt Hobbs after five innings and 77 pitches in last Sunday’s 15-6 win over Louisiana Tech.
“Hobbs went to shake my hand, and I was like ‘No,’ then he told me, he was like ‘Congratulations. You’re going to get the start on Friday,’ ” Hollan said. “I was like ‘That’s the only thing you could have said right now that would make this OK.’ I got pretty excited. I was excited for the challenge to start on Friday night.”
Smith, who earned two saves last year in the postseason, said he was OK with the move to the bullpen to shore up an injury plagued staff.
“I think it helped a little bit, just a mindset thing,” Smith said of his quality work out of the pen in 2022.
“It was the beginning of the week, me and Coach Hobbs had a conversation and he was telling me that he’s moving Hunter to Friday, I would come out of the pen, which I have no problem with at all. Hunter’s the best Friday guy in the league, so I knew it was going to be good either way.”
The Razorbacks turned in a handful of outstanding defensive plays and center fielder Tavian Josenberger nearly pulled off a diving catch of a liner on which he slid back-first into the outfield wall.
Third baseman Harold Coll and shortstop John Bolton made strong short-hop picks to throw out runners in the early innings, second baseman Peyton Stovall started a big double play to get Hollan out of the first, then added an impressive back-hand pick and throw across the body for an out in the eighth, and the first baseman Slavens snagged a liner that appeared to be ticketed for a run-scoring single with two outs in the sixth.
“I think we played really well today,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said, listing the sterling defensive work.
“I mean the double play in the first was, of course, that was the biggest play of the night, because getting out of the first with a zero … it’s good momentum for me,” Hollan said.
Auburn broke through in the third inning on Kason Howell’s two-out solo home run over the left-field wall. The hit came just after Hollan picked Nate LaRue off first base after the catcher broke an 0-for-17 skid with a single to center.
The Tigers added a single run in the fourth following Bryson Ware’s one-out single. Justin Kirby followed with a smash to the wall in right-center field which Tavian Josenberger had the ball in his glove before crashing into the wall. After a replay review, Kirby was awarded a single as Josenberger was deemed to have not completed the catch.
Chris Stanfield followed with a walk, then Caden Green’s fly ball to right field was deep enough to score Ware for a sacrifice fly. Hollan struck out Josh Hall with two runners on to escape the inning.
Auburn’s Vail cruised through three innings with only a couple of base runners, one of which he picked off first base.
But he lost command in the fourth and paid for it after walking Stovall and Wegner to open the inning. Slavens smacked a 2-2 pitch high into the air in right-center field and it caught the wind and caromed off the scoreboard for his second home run and a 3-2 lead.
“Right when it left the bat, I said it’s gone because it was hit high,” Van Horn said, citing the gusty conditions he noted during batting practice.
“Arkansas is just opportunistic and this is an offensive ballpark,” Auburn Coach Butch Thompson said. “If you get your barrel in position, it’s out.
“Kason, our guy, got a home run, but nobody was on. Their two walks were huge. Tommy still throws 3 2/3 and only gives two hits, but those two walks to start the fourth were huge.”
The Razorbacks added two more runs against Vail in the inning on RBI singles by Parker Rowland and Josenberger to plate Jace Bohrofen and Harold Coll, who had each walked.
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