Cold start no problem for Arkansas on Day 1

Arkansas pitcher Will McEntire celebrates an out during a game against James Madison on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Hank Layton/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — A harmless-looking fly ball turned into a wind-blown home run for James Madison slugger Fenwick Trimble, putting the University of Arkansas baseball team and ace pitcher Hagen Smith in a three-run hole before they could record the first out in Friday’s season opener.

It turned out to be the only problem for the No. 4 Razorbacks on a chilly, windy day as they rallied for two runs in each of the next three innings to post a 6-4 win before an announced crowd of 9,432 at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Veteran right-hander Will McEntire (1-0) was the star of the day. The former Bryant High School ace came in with “Return of the Mack” blaring on the loudspeakers in the second inning and held the Dukes down for 5 2/3 innings to post the win.

“That’s just what Will does, man,” said Arkansas catcher Hudson White, whose solo home run off Todd Mozoki (0-1) gave the Hogs the lead for good with one out in the second inning.

“Every time I’ve caught him he’s been like that. Super consistent. Does a great job of keeping hitters off balance.”

McEntire struck out 6 and allowed 3 hits, 1 walk and 1 earned run with a sharp cutter, fastball and curveball.

“I felt like I did a pretty good job of keeping it down today,” McEntire said. “I’ve got to give credit to ‘Huddy’ [White]. We had a good game plan just mixing pretty well and hitting spots.

“I just think I commanded the ball pretty well. Huddy helped me steal some strikes and just let them put the ball in play and get themselves out.”

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said McEntire can fill any number of roles on the Hogs’ pitching staff.

“He’s going to do everything,” Van Horn said. “He kept the ball down I’d say a little bit with his fastball, but he got them looking for that cutter all the time and that fastball looked a lot harder than it was. They were missing it.”

Gage Wood finished up for the save with four strikeouts among his seven outs.

Arkansas improved to 21-1 in season-opening games under Van Horn, including 15-1 at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Jared Sprague-Lott had a big debut as a Razorback. He hit a tying home run to open the second inning, added an RBI single in the third and played flawless defense at third base, including a sharp over-the-shoulder catch in foul territory to end the fifth inning.

“After we went down 3-0, we stayed pretty calm and we just wanted to chip away one batter at a time and just do whatever we could to get ahead,” Sprague-Lott said. “The home run was just a great moment. A lot of fun rounding the bases and getting back to the dugout with the rest of the guys.”

Sprague-Lott and Kendall Diggs had two hits each to lead the Hogs’ nine-hit attack.

Smith gave up just one hit in his 42-pitch performance, but it came after he had trouble locating and catching a bad break.

James Madison leadoff hitter Mason Dunaway worked him for a six-pitch walk to open the game, then Mike Mancini reached when he was hit on the shoulder by a 0-2 pitch.

Trimble, who had 13 home runs and 52 RBI as a sophomore last season, survived a check-swing review that would have been strike three, then stayed alive when his foul tip hit White’s glove but eventually came out.

“Yeah, I think [the ball coming out] might have been on the transfer, I don’t know,” White said of the foul tip.

No matter, a couple of pitches later, Fenwick hit a soaring ball into right center that caught a stiff wind and kept drifting until it left the yard, just beyond the glove of center fielder Ty Wilmsmeyer.

“The wind blowing out to right center, I thought it was an F8 [fly out to center], but the wind just kept it going on Fen’s three-run home run,” James Madison Coach Marlin Ikenberry said.

“Our guys kept battling [Smith] really well. I mean, he’s an elite arm. He’s going to be really good. I just thought this early in the year we did a really good job of getting his pitch count up in that first inning.”

Van Horn gave a rundown of how the first couple of batters reached base and his take on the foul-tip play before adding, “Then the ball blows out of the park. It’s just a routine fly ball. We’re telling the center fielder to throw the ball to second base on the tag. Next thing you know, it blows out of the park. Yeah, he hits a guy 0-2, a foul tip jumps out of the glove and all of a sudden you’re down 3-0.”

The Razorbacks didn’t stay down long.

They caught a wind-blown break of their own when Diggs’ one-out fly to left fooled Ryan Dooley and dropped in for a double. Weihwa Aloy drew a walk behind him and Ben McLaughlin’s first-pitch single brought in Diggs. Peyton Holt followed with a two-out single to make it 3-2.

The home runs by Sprague-Lott and White put Arkansas ahead in the second inning.

In the third, Jack Wagner and Holt drew one-out walks, then Sprague-Lott made it 5-3 with a single to right. Sprague-Lott tried to stretch his hit into a double, creating a rundown on which Holt raced home for a 6-3 lead.

Trimble had a three-hit day to lead the Dukes. He doubled and scored on Coleman Calabrese’s RBI groundout in the sixth to cut Arkansas’ lead to 6-4.

Neither team could push across a run after that, though the Razorbacks had a runner thrown out at home on a run-on-contact ground ball by Will Edmundson in the eighth inning.