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.
Smith vs. Skenes delivers fireworks in short amount of time
Arkansas starting pitcher Hagen Smith (33) reacts on his way back to the dugout after being relieved, Thursday, May 25, 2023, during the fourth inning of the Razorbacks’ 5-4 win over the LSU Tigers at the 2023 SEC Baseball Tournament at the Hoover Metropolitan Complex in Hoover, Ala.
One of the most anticipated pitching matchups of the season was short-lived Thursday evening at the SEC Tournament.
Arkansas left-hander Hagen Smith and LSU right-hander Paul Skenes each pitched 3 2/3 innings as the Razorbacks defeated the Tigers 5-4 to move to the tournament semifinals.
Both pitchers were on low pitch counts to keep them fresh for starts during the NCAA regional round next week. Smith threw 76 pitches and Skenes threw 88.
“They weren't going to throw Paul Skenes 105 pitches, and we weren't going to throw Hagen 100,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “I think it's just the way you take care of guys, get ready for regionals.”
Albeit brief, the pitching matchup featured some firsts.
Smith set a season high with nine strikeouts. It tied his career high that was set last season as a freshman in seven innings against Southeastern Louisiana.
Smith was pulled after he loaded the bases in the fourth inning with a pitch count of 76. Van Horn said before the game that Smith would be on a count of 70 to 75.
“Hagen, he wasn’t done,” Van Horn told SEC Network after the game. “He was mad at me for coming out there. It was probably the first time in his short two-year career that he’s waving me back and I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to do this. I’m going to go get him.’
“I appreciate it. He’s a competitor and wants to get after it. In a normal situation, we’d let him finish this inning and continue on.”
Smith threw 49 of 76 pitches for strikes for an average of 64.5%. That followed his best strike percentage in an SEC start last week at Vanderbilt where he threw 67.9% of his pitches for strikes.
LSU coach Jay Johnson said before the game on the LSU Sports Radio Network that he voted for Smith as the SEC pitcher of the year because he was not permitted to vote for his own ace, Skenes. Both pitchers were voted All-SEC earlier in the week.
“I really believe this is the pitching matchup of the year in college baseball,” Johnson told SEC Network before the game.
Smith was great against LSU for the third time in his career. He threw seven scoreless innings against the Tigers last year in Fayetteville, and had 4 2/3 innings of strong relief earlier this year in Baton Rouge, La.
In three outings against LSU, Smith has an ERA of 2.94, a WHIP of 1.11 and 24 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings.
“I remember last year in Fayetteville he shut us out and it was the first time I’d had a team shut out in like five years,” Johnson told SEC Network. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy is a freshman. We’ve got to deal with him for two years.’
“He’s good. He throws all his pitches for strikes and he’s competitive. You can’t give him anything. You have to stay in the strike zone because if you expand the strike zone, he’s going to take a mile from you.”
Like the game against Arkansas two months ago, Skenes showed electric stuff through three quick innings. His fastball registered a 103 mph reading on the video scoreboard at the Hoover Met.
"I believe that's the hardest we've seen a first round college pitcher ever throw pre-draft if that reading is accurate,” Baseball America editor-in-chief JJ Cooper wrote on Twitter.
Skenes is projected to be the first pitcher taken in this year’s MLB Draft, and possibly the second overall pick behind his teammate, center fielder Dylan Crews. Smith might be a first-round pick after his junior season in 2024.
“You’ve got these two guys going tonight, they’re both going to pitch in the big leagues, and if they stay healthy they’re both going to pitch in the big leagues for a long time,” Van Horn told SEC Network before the game. “The SEC is amazing. I know there are some great teams out there, great pitching, but the depth of this league is something else. It will just flat out wear you out or get you ready for the next few weeks [of regional play].”
Skenes looked almost unflappable — Van Horn called him a “superstar pitcher” before the game — as he rolled through the regular season en route to being named SEC pitcher of the year. He entered Thursday’s game ranked top five nationally in ERA (1.77), WHIP (0.75) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (10.93).
The key to the game was how the Razorbacks made Skenes uncharacteristically labor through a 40-pitch fourth inning in which he only recorded two outs — his worst inning since transferring from Air Force last summer.
Arkansas’ five runs against Skenes (three runs were unearned following a catcher interference call after he left the game) in the fourth were the most he has allowed in an inning. His previous high was three runs during the fourth inning of a game against Ole Miss on April 21.
Those three Ole Miss runs came on a home run, but Arkansas stacked walks and singles against him after he hit Jared Wegner with a pitch to lead off the big inning.
“We had a really good approach prior to the game that we talked about…and I think he did a really good job seeing pitches,” said Arkansas second baseman Peyton Holt, who had two hits against Skenes, including a game-tying RBI just before he was removed from the game in the fourth inning. “It trickled down the lineup and I think we did a really good job against him.”
The Razorbacks waited out Skenes the first time they saw him March 24, then peppered the LSU bullpen in the 10th inning and won 9-3. Skenes allowed 2 hits and struck out 12 Arkansas hitters in 7 innings that day.
The constant in the Razorbacks’ two starts against Skenes was their ability to match LSU’s ace on the mound. Smith and lefty Hunter Hollan combined to shut down the Tigers’ lineup again, two months after they dueled Skenes and pitched all 10 innings in Baton Rouge.
“They're two of the best left-handed pitchers in college baseball,” Johnson said.
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