Wegner back as Hogs eye SEC prize

Arkansas left fielder Jared Wegner (11) hits a go-ahead home run Sunday, April 2, 2023, during the fifth inning of the Razorbacks’ 5-4 series-clinching win over Alabama at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas will battle for the SEC baseball crown this weekend at Vanderbilt with slugging left fielder Jared Wegner back in the lineup but with second baseman Peyton Stovall shelved for the season.

Coach Dave Van Horn said Wednesday that Wegner had a solid live batting practice Tuesday while Stovall was confirmed to have a torn labrum in his right shoulder that will require surgery.

The No. 2 Razorbacks (38-13, 19-8 SEC) lead the SEC by 1 game over Florida, 11/2 games over LSU and 2 games over Vanderbilt (35-16, 17-10), which is 11-1 in SEC home games heading into today’s 6 p.m. series opener at Hawkins Field in Nashville, Tenn.

Arkansas, which won every weekend series en route to the SEC regular season and conference tournament championships in 2021, is vying for its second title in three years.

“Obviously we want to win it,” Van Horn said. “I mean, it’s so hard to win. You can have a great team and be in fourth or fifth place at this time of year. Things have fallen into place for us with the guys that have made it happen.”

Instead of being decimated by injuries, the Razorbacks plugged holes, shuffled pitching roles and just kept rolling. Arkansas has won eight of its past nine SEC games.

“It’s interesting because the way this season has gone as far as injuries, you have high expectations whenever the season starts, you lose one of your best pitchers, then you lose a reliever and we’re still finding ways to win games,” Van Horn said. “I haven’t talked one time with our team about winning the West or winning the overall.

“Even when it got close in the last 10 days, I haven’t even brought it up. Don’t even talk about it. … I’m not going to fall over if it doesn’t happen. Man, I feel great about where we’re at. I’m so proud of our team and how they’ve played all season long with all the adversity and ups and downs of the injuries.”

Van Horn said the Razorbacks would go with the same pitching plan they’ve used the past two weeks, announcing ace left-hander Hagen Smith (7-1, 2.47 ERA) for tonight’s game against Vandy right-hander Patrick Reilly (3-2, 6.43) and nothing beyond that.

Right-hander Brady Tygart (2-0, 2.92) is scheduled to make his fourth consecutive weekend start after recovering from a strained elbow ligament, and lefty Hunter Hollan (7-2, 3.75) is also likely to start after firing a 113-pitch complete game in a 5-1 win over South Carolina on Sunday.

The Razorbacks won last weekend’s series 2-1 over the Gamecocks by using just those three starters, plus Gage Wood for the final 31/3 innings of the opener and Will McEntire for the final 98 pitches behind Tygart in the second game.

Tygart has thrown one, two and then three shutout innings in successive starts against Texas A&M, Mississippi State and South Carolina. He has allowed one hit and two walks in that span, lowering his ERA from 5.68 to 2.92. His pitch count was about 45 last week and he threw 37 after back-to-back 20-pitch outings.

“Yeah, it’ll be up probably another 15-20 pitches maybe, but he’s got to go out there and do it,” Van Horn said.

Van Horn was asked if he could possibly return Tygart to the closer spot this weekend.

“Right now we’ll probably stick with the same formula that we’ve gone to on game one to win games, that’s bringing in [Gage] Wood if we have a chance,” he said.

“If we’re losing, we might not bring him in. Yeah, just not going to change things up too much. But if the game went into extra innings and we punched in a couple runs, I mean there’s a possibility that could happen.”

Vanderbilt, which has lost five of its past six league games to fall out of first place, has its own pitching issues. Ace left-hander Carter Holton (4-1, 4.11) might be done for the season and Coach Tim Corbin said the status of lefty Hunter Owen (4-0, 3.16) is “50-50” for this weekend.

“We’ll be without Holton and I don’t know if we’ll be without Owen,” Corbin said Tuesday on WPRT-FM in Nashville on Tuesday. “But they started off as our one and two and you don’t want to go into any situation limping, but it gives other kids the opportunity to get into those roles.”

Wegner (.351, 12 HR, 44 RBI) has not taken an at bat in a game since suffering a hairline fracture in his left thumb during a 21-5 win over UALR on April 11. Teammates Kendall Diggs (.319, 10, 55) and Jace Bohrofen (.355, 13, 45) overtook Wegner’s team-leading home run and RBI standards in the interim, but it took a while during the ensuing 18 games.

Van Horn said Wegner’s live batting practice Tuesday went well.

“He got a lot of swings and then we let him hit a lot extra off the live pitchers that were getting their workout in inside,” Van Horn said. “I mean, he got some at-bats. So he got to see live pitching.

“If he hit the first pitch, that was that. If he saw seven and walked, that was the at-bat. Then taking an at-bat or two off and the other guys would hit, then he’d jump back in. I mean he got extra, a lot extra.”

The return of Wegner one week after Tavian Josenberger (.314, 7, 27) came back from an eight-game layoff due to a strained hamstring gets the Razorbacks closer to full strength but also means the hot bat of designated hitter Ben McLaughlin (.343, 2, 11) might have to come off the bench.

Diggs, McLaughlin, Bohrofen, third baseman Caleb Cali (.301, 8, 29), first baseman Brady Slavens (.281, 8, 38) and Peyton Holt (.333, 1, 10) helped keep the Razorbacks winning with key players sidelined.