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.
Razorback Baseball Notebook: Wegner returns, Holt dazzles, red dots Vandy
Arkansas left fielder Jared Wegner (11) is congratulated by center fielder Tavian Josenberger after scoring a run during a game against Vanderbilt on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Arkansas left fielder Jared Wegner returned to the lineup Thursday for the first time since he broke his left thumb during an April 11 game against Arkansas-Little Rock.
Wegner went 0 for 2 but scored twice — in the first and fourth innings — after he was hit by pitches during the second-ranked Razorbacks’ 8-2 victory at sixth-ranked Vanderbilt.
“It feels good,” Wegner said of returning. “You sit out for five weeks and watch them play and they've been playing really well. It just feels amazing to be back.”
Vanderbilt right-hander Patrick Reilly hit Wegner with the first pitch he saw in the first inning. He nearly had an RBI single in his first swing when he came back to the plate in the second inning, but Vanderbilt third baseman Davis Diaz made a great play to throw him out at first base on a ball that had an exit velocity of 115 mph.
“It’s amazing the third baseman just threw his glove down there and found it,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “If he doesn’t field that ball, who knows how many runs we would’ve scored.”
Wegner had the pins taken out of his thumb May 8 but was too sore to play in last weekend’s series win over South Carolina.
Van Horn was asked during his in-game interview on SEC Network about Wegner’s return. Wegner was batting .351 and led the team with 12 home runs and 44 RBI at the time of his injury.
“He’s a major threat,” Van Horn said. “He can can run. He’s got power. He can hit for average and drive in a lot of runs. He just makes us deeper. We need a right-handed bat. We’ve got a lot of lefties. He breaks them up a little bit.”
Arkansas second baseman Peyton Holt is making the loss of injured Peyton Stovall (torn labrum) easier to swallow.
The junior from Greenwood had a strong night in the field and at bat Thursday.
Holt walked and stole second base in his first plate appearance. He singled in the third, drove in a run with another hard-hit single to deep shortstop in the fourth and doubled and scored in the seventh.
Holt said the circumstances for his playing every day were tough.
“Prayers out to Stovall, hope everything goes good with his recovery,” Holt said. “But I mean it’s my spot now, and I’ve just got to do everything I can to play my butt off and help the team win in any way I can, and just keep playing hard.”
In the field, Holt made two gold-star stops, one to his left and one to his right to stop hot grounders and throw out Commodores. The first of those kept speedster Enrique Bradfield off the bases to open the fourth inning.
“He did a great job,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “I mean, offensively, three hits, scored a run. [He] saved a couple of runs with his glove.”
Holt finished 3 for 4 with a run scored and an RBI to lift his batting average to .365. He entered the game batting .333 and went 6 for 10 last weekend against South Carolina.
He made his 13th start of the year and his seventh in a row in place of Stovall, who last played April 29.
Vanderbilt had only a slight home-field advantage in the seats Thursday.
Hundreds of Arkansas fans flooded Hawkins Field with red and were rowdy from the get-go as the Razorbacks built a 7-0 lead through 3 1/2 innings.
“I was telling them down in the bullpen that if you look down there and up here, it’s almost like we almost out-traveled them to their hometown,” Arkansas pitcher Will McEntire said.
Among those in the crowd was Brady Toops, the starting catcher for the Razorbacks’ 2004 SEC championship team that played in the College World Series. That team won two of three games at Vanderbilt.
“When I come back here to this field…it brings back so many memories,” Toops said.
Toops, like many others in attendance, is an Arkansas fan who lives in Nashville. He said this is his second time to watch the Razorbacks play at Vanderbilt since his playing days.
Smith shines early
Arkansas left-hander Hagen Smith (8-1) powered through the first three innings, but his pitch count got up in the fourth and fifth as he gave up one run in each frame.
The sophomore allowed 2 runs, both earned, on 5 hits and 2 walks with 7 strikeouts in his sixth 5-inning start of the season. Smith threw 84 pitches and 57 for strikes.
“He just didn’t command the ball quite as well in those two innings,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “It led to pitching behind in the count, then you’re going to give up some hits, and that’s kind of what I saw. But I really liked his demeanor on the mound. I felt like he wasn’t just trying to strike people out — he was trying to get people out. That’s how you stay in the game longer.”
Smith threw 94 pitches last week in 5 2/3 innings and 112 the week before in 5 innings.
“We could have sent him out for one more, but we just felt like with the week being short, let’s get him out,” Van Horn said.
Mac on track
Junior right-hander Will McEntire worked the final four innings and allowed no runs on one hit to earn his second save. His work allowed the Razorbacks to save closer Gage Wood for another game in the series, though the freshman warmed up in the eighth inning.
McEntire broke a streak of allowing an earned run in 10 consecutive appearances dating to his complete-game 3-hitter in a 6-1 win over Louisiana Tech on March 11. He lowered his ERA from 5.54 to 5.22 with the scoreless performance.
McEntire went long out of the bullpen for the fourth consecutive SEC weekend, following stints of 5 2/3 innings against Texas A&M, 5 innings at Mississippi State and 6 innings against South Carolina.
McEntire retired 12 of the 14 batters he faced and struck out 6, including the side in the eighth inning.
You kidding me?
Dave Van Horn’s in-game interview with the SEC Network came at an opportune time.
As he was responding to the crew’s second question about overcoming injuries, Enrique Bradfield hit a two-hop shot to the left of second baseman Peyton Holt, who made an outstanding short-hop stop and threw the sprinter out.
The play came just as Van Horn was finishing the first sentence in this response: “But as far as just playing hard, man these dudes just show up every weekend and just play,” he said. “Just like that right there. Are you kidding me? That’s my backup. Really?
“He’s not a backup. Here’s what I tell the guys: ‘You’re not a backup, you’re a future starter. Just keep playing hard.’”
Vanderbilt opened the night ranked fifth in the country with a .982 fielding percentage, but the Commodores were super sloppy early and finished with season highs of 4 errors and 6 unearned runs allowed.
After Patrick Reilly walked Tavian Josenberger to open the game, he had the speedy center fielder picked off first base. But first baseman Parker Noland overthrew shortstop Jonathan Vastine in the rundown to allow Josenberger to advance a base.
Four batters later, Reilly induced a likely double-play ball from Caleb Cali, but second baseman RJ Austin botched the play, allowing the first two runs of the game to score.
In the fourth inning, with two on and two out, Peyton Holt grounded to shortstop. Vastine’s throw to first was errant, allowing two runs to score on the play.
Strife of Reilly
Vanderbilt right-hander Patrick Reilly had a third dreadful start in a row.
The 6-3 junior issued four walks, hit a batter and gave up a two-run homer to Brady Slavens during a 36-pitch first inning in which he threw 16 strikes.
The Razorbacks knocked him out of the game with two outs in the second inning after Caleb Cali’s RBI single. Reilly allowed 5 runs, only 1 of them earned, on 2 hits and 6 walks while throwing 64 pitches and 28 for strikes.
Reilly allowed 8 earned runs in 4 innings in a 10-0 loss at Florida last week, and in his start before that he gave up 5 runs, 4 of them earned, in 5 1/3 innings of an 11-2 loss at Alabama.
Vanderbilt’s Enrique Bradfield swiped two bases in the eighth inning to tie Kentucky’s Chad Green for third in SEC history.
Bradfield’s first stolen base in the inning could have rightly been ruled defensive indifference as the Razorbacks did not hold him on and Will McEntire’s pitch bounced away slightly from catcher Parker Rowland with Bradfield on the move.
That steal gave Bradfield 125 in his career, surpassing former Tennessee star Chris Burke, who was calling the game for SEC Network. Bradfield also took third base as McEntire struck out Chris Maldonado for the second out of the inning.
Tennessee’s Mike Basse owns the SEC record with 145, followed by his teammate Stevie Daniel, who had 134.
Arkansas has won 20 SEC games for the fourth time in program history.
Two of the previous three winners won the league championship, and all three teams were division champions.
The Razorbacks’ 1999 and 2021 teams won the SEC with program-best 22-8 records.
Arkansas’ 2019 team shared the SEC West championship with Mississippi State after finishing 20-10.
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