Matt Jones is the editor of the Hawgs Sports Network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas.
Diamond Hogs open fall with good day
Arkansas pitcher Brady Tygart throws prior to a scrimmage Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Older rosters are leading to cleaner, more competitive fall practice seasons in college baseball.
That was the case Friday as Arkansas opened its fall practice schedule with a five-inning intrasquad scrimmage at Baum-Walker Stadium. Dave Van Horn, the Razorbacks’ 22nd-year head coach, was pleased with the efficiency.
“I thought we played extremely good baseball for the first time out,” Van Horn said. “We hit the cut-off man on a relay play, handled the ball on a pick-off play and got the guy out — just little things. Pitchers threw strikes, we fielded the ball. We didn’t turn one [would-be] double play, but we’ll turn it 100 times out of 100 times after today.
“It was kind of fun to watch it. The pitchers competed and threw strikes. The hitters fought and we had two or three kids throwing 95, 96, 97 mph. I thought we handled it a little bit at the plate. I liked what I saw from the first day. It didn’t feel like the first day to me.”
Arkansas’ 47-man fall roster includes 24 newcomers to the program. Many are upperclassmen who transferred from other Division I programs, and the Razorbacks return 23 players from their SEC championship team last season.
“It’ll always be that way,” Van Horn said of having older rosters in the era of immediate transfers. “Then some of the freshmen we have, they’re good players. They’re strong. I thought [catcher Ryder] Helfrick did a great job behind the plate today throwing the ball and he had a couple of nice at-bats….I really like the way he receives the ball.
“We had a couple of freshmen who threw the ball really good. [Right-hander Gabe] Gaeckle was nervous for some reason, but he still threw the ball 97 mph. That’s probably the worst he’s pitched since he’s been here; he’s been electric. Brady [Tygart] threw extremely well.”
Van Horn said he expects solid scrimmages each day as the Razorbacks evaluate battles at most positions.
“It’s a lot easier for me to write up a lineup for a scrimmage game in the fall, and maybe it’s going to be more difficult for me to write up a lineup to start a real game in the spring," Van Horn said. "If that’s the case, that’s a good problem.”
Tygart’s 11-pitch top of the first inning set the tone for a good day by Arkansas’ pitchers. The only runs scored came on no-doubt home runs — a second-level, opposite-field shot to the Hunt Center in right field by Jayson Jones against Gaeckle in the top of the third, and a two-run homer inside the left-field foul pole by Ty Wilmsmeyer against Christian Foutch in the bottom of the third.
Tygart was aided by a good defensive play by third baseman Reese Robinett in the first at-bat of the scrimmage. Robinett made an over-the-shoulder catch in foul ground on a pop up by Jones.
Tygart followed by getting Ben McLaughlin to fly out to center field. Wehiwa Aloy grounded out to first base to end the top of the first.
Tygart has gained 20 pounds this offseason, which he thinks will help improve his velocity. He said his right elbow feels fine after a ligament sprain cost him eight weeks last season. He was slowly brought along after returning from the injury, then let loose in the postseason as he threw 99 pitches in his final outing in June.
“I feel great,” Tygart said. “I took some time this summer to kind of step away from the game and get in the weight room. I can hit the same velo I did last year with lower force, which will help protect my arm. That was the big thing, to stay healthy this year.”
Tygart said he is learning how to throw smoother and be more efficient so he can hold his velocity longer in his bid to win a starting job.
“I’m kind of cutting down on the effort level and trying to make it more efficient, and pound the strike zone with different pitches,” Tygart said.
The offensive star of the scrimmage might have been infielder Peyton Holt, who had first-pitch doubles against Will McEntire to the left-field wall in the second inning and to the warning track in center field against Jack Smith in the fourth.
Holt would have had an RBI on the second hit if not for hesitant base running by Aloy, who went back toward second base initially. A strong cut off began with a throw from the center fielder Wilmsmeyer to shortstop Nolan Souza, then Souza’s throw to home plate caused Aloy to be caught in a rundown. Aloy was thrown out at third base.
McEntire threw a wild pitch that allowed Holt to advance to third base with one out in the second inning, but he stranded him there when he struck out Will Edmunson and Ty Waid.
Lefty Jordan Huskey also escaped a jam in the fifth inning. Waid singled, Hunter Grimes doubled to the left-center field gap and Jones was hit by a pitch to load the bases with one out.
Per scrimmage rules, Jones remained at the plate while a pinch runner went to first base. He hit into a fielder’s choice that forced Waid out at the plate, then McLaughlin grounded out to leave the bases loaded.
Left-handed transfer Mason Molina from Texas Tech stranded Kendall Diggs at second base in the bottom of the first inning after Diggs walked and stole second base. Right-hander Gage Wood worked around a pair of four-pitch walks in the bottom of the second inning.
No base runners reached against Tygart or Jake Faherty in the fifth inning.
• Aloy, the shortstop transfer from Sacramento State, has a quick release on his throws to first base. He showed off the arm when the speedy Wilmsmeyer grounded to him in the first at-bat against Molina, but was out at first base.
• Parker Rowland and Hudson Polk were designated hitters while Helfrick and Texas Tech transfer Hudson White caught Friday. Rowland is expected to have light work behind the plate this fall.
• Souza, the shortstop, made a strong play deep in the hole to throw out Helfrick in the third inning. Both of Arkansas’ top shortstops are from Hawaii.
• Left-hander Stone Hewlett, a transfer from Kansas, picked off White in the fourth inning after White hit a single hard up the middle.
• Edmunson made a leaping catch at the left-field wall on a hard-hit ball by Jared Sprague-Lott in the fourth inning. It appeared the ball might be a home run off the bat, but it held up and likely would have gone off the wall without the catch.
• Outfielder Lincoln Riley, a transfer from Eastern Illinois, did not scrimmage Friday. Van Horn said he is dealing with a shoulder injury.
• Van Horn said right-handed pitcher Dylan Carter is progressing well in his recovery from Tommy John surgery and might be able to pitch at some point in 2024.
• Second baseman Peyton Stovall is ahead of schedule in his rehab from a surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Van Horn said. Stovall will soon begin a throwing program and is expected to be able to play second base again in 2024.
• Arkansas is expected to scrimmage again Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
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