Arkansas baseball has found bullpen leader in Will McEntire

Arkansas pitcher Will McEntire throws during a game against LSU on Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Charlie Kaijo/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — One possible plus LSU Coach Jay Johnson saw after the University of Arkansas baseball team’s 7-4 victory over the Tigers on Thursday night was that Will McEntire threw 62 pitches in 2 2/3 innings for the Razorbacks.

“McEntire’s a winner and he’s got video game reliever numbers,” Johnson said. “But we got him to 60 [plus] pitches.

“Hopefully he won’t be able to come back this weekend.”

It turned out to be wishful thinking on Johnson’s part.

McEntire came back in the series finale Saturday and helped the No. 1 Razorbacks hold on to beat the No. 7 Tigers 7-5 at Baum-Walker Stadium to complete a three-game sweep of the defending national champions.

“It’s like he’s insurance,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. “You just know you can go to that guy. He’s always ready to pitch, he wants to pitch.

“He’s like he has a rubber arm, never bothers him. It’s like having a security blanket in a way.”

Ideally McEntire would have come in to pitch the ninth inning Saturday.

But when the Tigers loaded the bases against Hunter Dietz with two outs in the eighth, McEntire came in to face Mac Bingham — who already had hit two home runs in the game. He also had doubled against McEntire on Thursday night as well as struck out.

McEntire struck out Bingham again to leave the go-ahead runs stranded.

After the Tigers got runners on first and second base with one out in the ninth inning on a walk by Michael Braswell and infield single by Brady Neal, the Razorbacks won when Tommy White lined into a double play.

McEntire, a fifth-year senior right-hander from Bryant, is 2-0 with 3 saves and a 1.93 ERA in 13 games — all in relief. In 32 2/3 innings he has 41 strikeouts and 6 walks.

In two games against LSU, McEntire threw 86 pitches, including 24 Saturday.

“We didn’t want him doing much,” Van Horn said. “That was all he needed to throw right there. Glad it worked out.”

Van Horn hadn’t planned to use McEntire on Saturday.

“I didn’t write [McEntire’s name] on the lineup card, and I always post the lineup card by the locker room,” Van Horn said. “When I went and got it right before we went out to stretch, his name just appeared.”

Van Horn said pitching coach Matt Hobbs confirmed McEntire added his name.

Arkansas second baseman Peyton Stovall said he didn’t see McEntire write his name on the lineup card, but there was a telltale sign.

“We filled it out with red and the only other name that was a different color was McEntire’s and it was black,” Stovall said. “We knew he did that, but he’s a competitor and that’s just the type of guy he is.”

Six Arkansas relievers pitched a combined 13 innings in the series and held the Tigers to 3 runs, 10 hits and 4 walks with 18 strikeouts.

“I think we answered the call,” said senior right-hander Koty Frank, who pitched Saturday. “That doesn’t mean we can take time off, though. We’ve got to keep answering that call every game.”

Stone Hewlett, a senior left-hander and transfer from Kansas, struck out the only two batters he faced on the weekend, but picked up a victory and save.

On Thursday night, Hewlett got the final out when he struck out the left-handed hitting Neal, then he got the final out in the Razorbacks’ 4-3 victory in 10 innings on Friday night when he struck out the left-handed hitting Josh Pearson.

“That’s his job: come in and get a lefty,” Van Horn said. “He could do it three times on a weekend. Doesn’t bother him a bit. He’s known it since we recruited him that you come here and this is what we’re going to use you as, and he was all in.”

Sophomore right-hander Christian Foutch threw two scoreless innings Friday night. The stadium scoreboard showed his fastball hit 99 miles per hour.

“He’s going to throw 101 one day,” Van Horn said. “It might be next week, but he’s got a really good arm, bright future. We needed to get him in a game like this and have him have success and that’s going to really boost his confidence.”

Freshman right-hander Gabe Gaeckle threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings Friday night.

“I like the way he was commanding his fastball,” Van Horn said. “Mixed in a few breaking balls. Just did a tremendous job.”

Frank threw 3 innings on Saturday and allowed 2 hits, 1 run and 1 walk. He came in for Brady Tygart with runners on first and second base and no outs in the fifth inning and kept the score 4-4 by striking out Neal and getting White to hit into a double play.

“Frank came in and just had great stuff,” Van Horn said. “He had all three of his pitches working it looked like to us in the dugout.”

An indication of how high the coaching staff is on Dietz is that the freshman left-hander made his Arkansas debut Saturday after recovering from elbow surgery last fall.

The first batter Dietz faced was White — who in three seasons at North Carolina State and LSU has a .359 batting average and 60 home runs. Dietz, who walked White, got two outs, but left the bases loaded for McEntire. 

“That’s a pretty big spot to come in as a freshman, but I talked to some guys in the dugout and what a better spot to be in,” Frank said. “As a freshman if I would have been told I was going to go in against Tommy White, as a competitor, I would love that for sure.

“What a great introduction to college baseball for [Dietz], and he handled it really well. I know his stat line may not show it, but he threw the ball really well and he’s going to be a big piece for us moving forward.”

Van Horn said he and Hobbs decided to use Dietz against LSU because if they waited for Tuesday night’s game against Arkansas State, he likely couldn’t pitch later this week against Ole Miss.

“We almost brought him in a couple innings earlier, but we couldn’t take Frank out because he was throwing so good,” Van Horn said. “We thought Frank would get us through that [fifth] inning there, maybe give us one more, but his stuff was so good.”

Van Horn said he was pleased with Dietz, who threw 11 strikes on 20 pitches.

“I thought he threw the ball pretty good, honestly,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know what his velocity was, 92-93, but there’s a lot more in there and there will be more coming.

“I feel like our bullpen is getting deeper.”

Despite the depth, McEntire remains the No. 1 option in relief and he was ready to throw twice in a weekend for the fourth time this season.

“He’s unbelievable,” Stovall said. “There’s not many guys that will go out there and do that.

“He just puts the team first before himself. That’s what I think it really shows. The guys on the team love him. He’s a great teammate and when he goes out there we trust him a lot.”