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.
'A great challenge': Gamecocks next in Hogs' final home series
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn (center) high-fives third baseman Caleb Cali (6), Friday, April 28, 2023, after Cali scored during the second inning of the Razorbacks’ 10-4 win over the Texas A&M Aggies at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The injury progress isn’t advancing as quickly as the No. 3 Arkansas Razorbacks would like, but they do seem on track to get one key outfielder back for their final home series against No. 7 South Carolina, which starts tonight at 6:30 at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Center fielder Tavian Josenberger, who has been out since April 22 with a strained hamstring, will be on the 27-man active roster for the second straight week for the University of Arkansas (36-12, 17-7 SEC), which enters the weekend tied with Vanderbilt for the league lead and a half-game ahead of LSU in the SEC West.
Left fielder Jared Wegner and second baseman Peyton Stovall don’t appear ready to roll for the Hogs.
“Josenberger’s looking good,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said on a Thursday video conference. “He worked out with us yesterday. He’ll be out there again today, so he’ll be on the roster again.
“Wegner got his pins out on Monday. He’s still pretty sore. He’ll be on the roster. Still not sure about playing yet. He’s not swinging the bat with the team at all yet, so probably highly unlikely this weekend.
“And then Stovall’s shoulder is not doing great. So probably not, as of now [going to] put him on the roster. We’ll see how that goes.”
The Razorbacks have to submit their roster to the SEC today.
South Carolina (36-12, 14-9) has also been beset by injuries, including a foot problem for normal Friday night starter Will Sanders (4-3, 5.75), who isn’t expected to be on the travel roster. Sophomore right-hander Eli Jones (4-2, 3.38 ERA) is scheduled to start for the Gamecocks, who have lost four games in a row.
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“I’ll assure everyone the morale in this building remains very good,” South Carolina Coach Mark Kingston said to open his Thursday news conference. “This is a team that knows who they are and knows what we’re capable of.
“We all know what we’re going through right now and what it’s causing, but we still have a lot of confidence that the team that has been one of the best in the country still resides in this building and it’s just a matter of getting back on track.
“We have a big challenge this weekend. Arkansas is a good team and this is a really tough place to play so it should be a great challenge for us.”
Van Horn said the Hogs would go the same route with their weekend rotation as they did last week, with lefty Hagen Smith (7-1, 2.56 ERA) slated for tonight and no announced plan beyond that. The Razorbacks swept Mississippi State on the road last week with Brady Tygart (2-0, 3.86) working two innings in Game 2, backed by Will McEntire (6-2, 5.64). Hunter Hollan (6-2, 4.15), the series-opening starter for seven consecutive weekends prior to last week, worked 3 2/3 innings in Game 3.
Smith has maxed out at five innings in five of his seven starts this season. While his ERA ranks third in the SEC along with his batting average allowed (.181), his ability to last deeper into games has been hampered by walks and lack of early contact.
The Gamecocks have also been starting 6-3 right-hander Jack Mahoney (4-2, 4.42) and 6-3 left-hander Matthew Becker (4-1, 4.46) on the weekends but Coach Mark Kingston has left his Saturday slot open and announced Becker would start on Sunday.
Junior right-hander James Hicks (6-1, 3.88) of Conway has the third-highest innings pitched on the team and is sure to figure in.
“I’ve been watching Arkansas play ever since I can remember,” Hicks said Thursday. “I had flags of them up on the wall, so it’s definitely one that I’ve looked forward to all year. It should be a good one. I’m excited.”
South Carolina got off to a sizzling 9-1 start in SEC play, but has gone 5-8 since then, bogged down by the injuries.
South Carolina entered the USA Today Coaches poll at No. 20 on March 6 and has been in the top 14 in every subsequent poll, peaking at No. 2 on April 24.
“I think they have a great team,” Van Horn said. “They have some veterans back in some key spots. I know they’ve had some injuries, but they have a lot of pitching. They strike you out a lot and they hit balls over your head and a lot of them go out of the park.”
South Carolina’s offensive stats are indeed eye catching.
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The power-hitting Gamecocks have 103 home runs, tied for first in the SEC with Tennessee and third nationally. They are 11th in on-base percentage (.425) and 13th in slugging (.541).
“No lead is safe,” Van Horn said. “I think they probably feel that way as an offense. They can catch you and if you let your guard down, they can get you.
“They can run when they need to. They’ve got a good stolen base percentage (44 of 49, .898). Yeah, it’s really good. That means they’re picking and choosing their times and it’s worked out for them.”
Freshman Ethan Petry (.395, 21 home runs, 68 RBI) is in pursuit of the SEC’s record for home runs by a freshman with Georgia’s Charlie Condon, who has tied former Vanderbilt star Pedro Alvarez for the record with 22.
Other key hitters for the Gamecocks are catcher Cole Messina (.315, 15, 58), who has had to fill in on the infield with key personnel missing, Talmade LeCroy (.310, 3, 30), Braylon Wimmer (.299, 11, 36), and Will McGillis (.297, 22, 57).
Arkansas has found a formula for winning conference games with key pieces missing. Jace Bohrofen (.373, 13, 44) continues to be a force along with Kendall Diggs (.329, 10, 52), Caleb Cali (.306, 8, 28) and Brady Slavens (.277, 8, 38) at the top of the order.
Ben McLaughlin (.379, 1, 10) has been productive at designated hitter in recent weeks and role players have filled in for the missing to keep the Hogs on track.
“Bottom line is when these guys get in they’ve done a great job of making plays,” Van Horn said. “They may not have a great offensive night but they’re making defensive plays. They’re all picking each other up.
“It’s been a good experience for me to watch, honestly.”
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