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.
Unlikely title run a reflection of Diamond Hogs' coaching, depth, unity
Arkansas players gather in prayer prior to a game against Vanderbilt on Friday, May 19, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2023 SEC baseball championship was a true team effort.
It took all hands on deck to overcome injuries to elbows, thumbs, hamstrings and shoulders that kept some of the team’s biggest contributors benched for weeks at a time or shelved entirely.
It would have been understandable if the season went the way of 2016, when Dave Van Horn missed the postseason for the only time in his 21-year tenure at Arkansas. Instead, the injuries built a resilience in this year’s Razorbacks that might prove beneficial in the coming weeks during the NCAA postseason, and will cause them to be remembered as conference champions for the rest of time.
“With all the injuries we’ve had this year, it’s kind of hard to fathom that we’re in the spot we are right now,” outfielder Jace Bohrofen said. “With all of the stars that have gone down, all the guys on the bench have stepped up and played their game.
“I think if you would have told me, ‘Hey, these people are going to be hurt,’ and you told me we were going to be SEC champions, I would have taken that any day.”
Some combination of coaching, depth and want-to led to this outcome.
Van Horn is a frontrunner to earn SEC coach of the year for a third time. The award often goes to the coach who wins the conference, so there is a chance Van Horn might split it with Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan, whose team tied the Razorbacks as SEC champions.
As much as hardware, Van Horn’s candidacy is based on results in the face of difficult circumstances. Perhaps no other SEC team lost so much in terms of personnel, yet no SEC team won more than the Razorbacks.
“Dave does such a good job with this group,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “If one guy isn’t in the lineup, they put another guy in.”
More often than not — and late innings at Vanderbilt this week were an exception — Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs navigated conference play masterfully with a bullpen that was much thinner and younger than planned.
The decision to move left-hander Hagen Smith from the No. 1 starting position to a closer role was a tough decision that proved fruitful for the first half of conference play. The same can be said for the decision to move Will McEntire from the starting rotation to the bullpen, where he thrived over the back half of league play with long, impactful outings.
That kind of flexibility extended to the offensive side.
When the bottom of the batting order became stagnant in April, the Razorbacks infused some small-ball principles. That ignited the offense and created RBI opportunities for hitters at the top of the lineup.
During a 9-3 stretch to close the season against Texas A&M, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks averaged 7.3 runs per game, up from 5.9 in the first 18 SEC games when Arkansas went 11-7.
Defensively, Arkansas was the SEC’s best over 30 games with a fielding percentage of .986 despite reshuffling all over the field to compensate for the latest injury report.
And the scouting assessments of Van Horn, Hobbs, Nate Thompson and Bobby Wernes should not be overlooked in assembling an almost entirely new roster last offseason.
Twenty-nine different Razorbacks logged significant innings in conference play. Seventeen different position players started at least once, while 12 pitchers saw conference action. Six pitchers started at least twice.
To put those numbers in perspective, an SEC weekend roster only includes 27 players, many of whom may not see the field for weeks at a time.
Fill-in position players played an important role in the championship story. Peyton Holt has been good defensively and a spark plug at the bottom of the order since replacing Peyton Stovall as the second baseman. Ben McLaughlin batted .333 in SEC play as the designated hitter when Kendall Diggs was forced into action in right field.
Even seldom-used bench players made big contributions. Consider Reese Robinett's pinch-hit home run in the 10th inning at LSU or Hunter Grimes' assist from left field that began a rally against Texas A&M.
Every key play in every close win becomes more meaningful in a tight championship race.
Those around the team told a similar story of unselfishness in the Razorbacks’ clubhouse. It did not matter who got the job done.
“I see it all the time on this team, just guys getting pulled from games and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I understand why I got pulled,’” outfielder Jared Wegner said. “They’re cheering on that guy. I think it’s rare. There’s not a lot of teams out there where guys want to play well for themselves and the team, but this team, it’s team-first with us.”
There were strong hints of camaraderie during the fall when team building was one of the key focuses because of so many new players on the roster. It was so much of a consideration that Van Horn went into the clubhouse last summer to rearrange lockers to ensure that no two returning players would sit next to each other — a tactic that forced newcomers and returners to interact.
It worked. Players were said to be inseparable on excursions from hunting leases to golf courses to the ping-pong table in their clubhouse.
For hours during the offseason, players gathered around the table for tournaments that lasted for hours at a time. Van Horn recalled before the season a time last fall when the players were given two days off. They filled those days together playing ping-pong.
“That eased our minds a little bit,” Van Horn said in February. “Those guys are going to pull for each other, whether they’re playing or not.”
Sometimes championships aren’t won by the most talented teams, but by the teams that will play hard for each other. That was true for Van Horn’s first SEC championship team in 2004 that had one all-conference player, and it was true for his latest champion that might be light on All-SEC players when awards are announced Monday.
That was a characteristic Brady Toops, the starting catcher in 2004, noticed from his seat during the Vanderbilt series.
“The interesting thing about this team, even watching them in warmups, they all feel like they’re a brotherhood,” Toops said. “Like right before the game they all circle up. They’re all rooting for each other.
“I don’t know that this team has the best players Arkansas has ever had, but it seems like the way they gel is really special, and that’s really what matters.”
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