Arkansas baseball's Hagen Smith has a fan in LSU coach Jay Johnson

Arkansas pitcher Hagen Smith prepares to throw during a game against James Madison on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Hank Layton/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — At last year’s SEC baseball tournament, LSU coach Jay Johnson recalled the first time his team faced Arkansas left-handed pitcher Hagen Smith.

“I remember [in 2022] 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 [more] years.’”

LSU will be up against Smith for possibly the final time Thursday when the No. 1 Razorbacks host the No. 7 Tigers at 6 p.m. (ESPN2). 

In the 2022 shutout that alerted Johnson to Smith’s potential, the then-freshman Smith threw 7 innings with just 2 hits, 1 walk and 7 strikeouts. At that point in the season, it was Smith’s second scoreless outing, the first coming in six-inning his first career appearance against Illinois State. 

He did it against an LSU team that was ranked No. 12 at the time and entered the series ranked second in the SEC in runs scored (286), batting average (.303), slugging percentage (.536) and on-base percentage (.421).

Smith’s two appearances against the Tigers in 2023 — first in late March, when he came out of the bullpen, and again at the SEC Tournament, when he started — were both Arkansas wins. He went a combined 8 1/3 innings with 10 hits, 5 runs, 4 walks and 17 strikeouts.

Johnson had the best pitcher in college baseball on his team that year in Paul Skenes, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, the Dick Howser Trophy Winner and the national player of the year by multiple outlets. Skenes also won SEC pitch of the year, but Johnson, who was not allowed to vote for his own player, cast his vote for Smith.

This season, Smith is putting up Skenes-like numbers. In his last five starts, he has an ERA of 0.32, a WHIP of 0.64 and a nation-leading 19.3 strikeouts per 9 innings. Over the same 5-week stretch last season, Skenes had a 0.86 ERA, 0.54 WHIP and 16.9 strikeouts per 9.

But another pitcher has at times evoked memories of Skenes: LSU’s Luke Holman, who has replaced Skenes as the Tigers’ ace and will start for them on Friday. Holman (5-1, 0.78 ERA) didn’t allow a run in his first 24 innings pitched and has had double-digit strikeouts in four of his six starts.

In his last five starts, the Alabama transfer has a 0.78 WHIP, 0.92 ERA and 14.1 strikeouts per 9.

“[Holman] is throwing the ball over the plate,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said Wednesday. “He's got really, really good stuff, good secondary stuff. I think his batting average against him [.157] is amazing. He's doing everything you're supposed to do as a No. 1 [starter]. … When we do face him, he is going to be a handful.”

Between Smith and Holman, this weekend's series will be one to watch for exceptional pitching. Johnson’s opinion of Smith remains the same as when the lefty was a freshman. 

“[Arkansas has the] best starting pitching staff in college baseball, without question,” Johnson said on his weekly radio show Monday. “I think they have the best pitcher in college baseball in Hagen Smith.”

An earlier version of this story stated Holman would likely start Game 1 on Thursday. The story has since been updated to reflect an announcement that Holman will start Game 2 Friday.