Van Horn: Arkansas baseball 'learned a lot' about itself during opening weekend

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is shown prior to a game against James Madison on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Hank Layton/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — Dave Van Horn had a humorous take on a warm Monday afternoon after his Arkansas Razorbacks capped a 3-1 season-opening series win with a 4-0 victory over James Madison at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Van Horn, who began his 22nd season as Arkansas' baseball coach, was asked his top takeaways from the four-game set as the Razorbacks turned their sights to this weekend’s College Baseball Series in Arlington, Texas.

“Well, the first two I’ve kind of forgotten about because I was so cold,” Van Horn said.

Indeed, the temperatures hovered in the mid-30s with a stiff wind on opening day dropping the “feels like” temperature around freezing, for the Hogs’ 6-4 and 15-5 wins over the Dukes.

The climate was warmer for Arkansas’ 7-3 loss Sunday and quite lovely for the Monday finale.

No. 4 Arkansas won’t have to worry about the weather conditions for its three-game set in Arlington’s climate-controlled Globe Life Field, where the Razorbacks will face No. 7 Oregon State on Friday at 7 p.m., Oklahoma State on Saturday at 7 p.m., and Michigan on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Oregon State defeated the Razorbacks in the championship series of the 2018 College World Series.

“I think we’ve learned a lot about our team,” Van Horn said of the opening series. “You kind of find out about the individual and maybe their mindset in a game compared to maybe a scrimmage, and it’s loose.

“Now you have people in the stands. I really don’t want to make too many comments publicly, but there’s some guys that they need to relax a little bit and just play the game. Take practice to the game, workout to the game. It’s just a game. Change your mindset a little bit. I think when that happens, we’ll see some guys elevate.”

The Razorbacks came out of their opening set with a .310 team batting average, good for sixth in the SEC and 60th in the country.

The solid batting average did not translate into runs as much as Van Horn and hitting coach Nate Thompson would prefer. Arkansas scored seven runs per game, which ranks ninth among SEC teams and tied for 105th in Division I.

Arkansas had four runners thrown out on the bases in Saturday’s loss, including speedy Ty Wilmsmeyer, the only Razorback caught stealing on four attempts in the series.

“We’ve got to do a better job running the bases,” Van Horn said. “We’ve got to do a better job of — and it comes and goes throughout the season — but we’ve got to drive in some runs.”

The Razorbacks put together a solid .979 fielding percentage with only three errors: Bad throws by first baseman Jack Wagner on Saturday and by third baseman Jared Sprague-Lott and pitcher Colin Fisher on Monday. They had no errors in the two coldest games.

Wagner’s error came when he cut off a throw to the plate by right fielder Kendall Diggs on a tag play, and his errant throw to third base allowed another run to score.

Diggs and his top-of-the-order mates Hudson White and Ben McLaughlin were the only Razorbacks to have a hit in all four games. Diggs leads the team with a .400 batting average, followed by McLaughlin (.385) and White (.333), the team leader with four extra-base hits.

The collection of Sprague-Lott, Wagner and Wilmsmeyer, the team leader with 5 RBI, plus Ryder Helfrick and Ross Lovich all hit .333 during the series.

Shortstop Wehiwa Aloy did not register a hit in the opener, but he’ll take a three-game hitting streak, including two hits Sunday and Monday, and a .294 average into Arlington.

On the mound, senior Will McEntire (1-0, 1.17 ERA) got the most work with 7 2/3 innings, including a long stint behind Hagen Smith’s one-inning season debut Friday. The right-hander also worked a couple of shutout innings Monday.

“Will wanted to go at least one inning, then he strikes out the side on not a bunch of pitches,” Van Horn said of the seventh inning Monday. “That was a big inning, so we sent him back out.

“He keeps telling us — he told us all year, all summer as well — ‘I want to pitch two times on the weekend every chance I get. I’ll pitch on Tuesday.’ Sometimes he just feels better if he’s out there throwing and pitching in games, maybe not so much throwing bullpens.”

Senior Koty Frank, coming off surgery for a torn lat muscle last season, also worked twice, throwing 3 1/3 shutout innings Saturday and Monday.

“I definitely can’t complain with that being my first two outings,” Frank said. “I made this joke to a couple of people. It felt good coming out the first time and hearing a cheer after my name got announced, because the last sound I heard coming off that mound was not a pleasant one. That definitely made me feel a lot better.”

The reference was to a subdued and concerned crowd when he doubled over in pain and had to come out with the lat injury during a 6-2 win over Wright State on March 5, 2023.

Freshman left-hander Colin Fisher (1-0, 0.00) made a stirring debut Monday by working five scoreless innings, with three hits and no walks, to pick up a win.

“My mindset was kind of throw strikes and trust the defense, because they were making some great plays,” Fisher said. “If they’re making plays like that, you might as well throw it in the zone and let them hit it.”

Right-hander Brady Tygart (1-0, 1.80) also turned in a five-inning start with a solid outing Saturday.

Fisher, Frank, Gage Wood, Stone Hewlett and Jake Faherty all worked at least one inning and did not allow an earned run in the opening series.

The Razorbacks’ team ERA of 3.86 is 10th among SEC teams and 81st in the country.