Diamond Hogs hope to close out Missouri State before heading to Kentucky

Wehiwa Aloy (Arkansas Athletics/@RazorbackBSB)

With thunder showers expected to subside this morning, the No. 2 Arkansas Razorbacks are expected to play their final non-conference baseball game of the season against Missouri State at 4 p.m. at Baum-Walker Stadium before moving on to more important business with a trip to Kentucky this weekend to face the No. 8 Wildcats in a three-game series at Lexington.

The Razorbacks moved to 38-7 overall on the season Tuesday with a 12-7 victory over the Bears that featured a first-inning grand slam by shortstop Wehiwa Aloy and a three-inning shutout start by sophomore pitcher Gage Wood, who recorded four strikeouts.

The victory moved the Razorbacks to 11-0 in mid-week games and gave the Hogs 30 wins in Baum-Walker Stadium this season against just two losses. It is the fifth time the Hogs have won 30 or more games at the venerable venue, which opened in 1996.

The Hogs are now chasing teams that won 34 games at home in 2018, 33 in 2019, 30 in 2021, and 32 last season. Arkansas’ non-conference schedule has arguably been less stiff in recent years after the ban from playing in-state opponents was lifted, but reaching 30 home wins in a season is a mark of success no matter how you get there.

It looked like the Hogs might run-rule the Bears in veteran coach Kent Guttin’s final business trip to Fayetteville, but after falling behind 9-0 in the third inning, the Bears tagged the Hogs with four runs in the fourth inning and added three more in the seventh, pushing the game to a nine-inning affair.

Guttin is retiring after this season. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn presented him with a couple of fishing poles and a Razorback umbrella in a short ceremony before the first pitch. The umbrella was a small jab at Guttin over a rainy, extra-inning game decades ago at Baum-Walker Stadium, in which both coaches got a bit fired up.

The up-and-down nature of the Hogs’ pitching performance and the need to save key arms for the weekend trip to Kentucky has the Razorbacks’ bullpen admittedly thin for today’s game, according to Van Horn.

While it would be a nice accomplishment for the Razorbacks to go undefeated in their non-conference slate, Van Horn wants all his bullets ready to fire against the Wildcats in what is a key series for both teams.

Up next for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Missouri State
When: 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 1
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network+

Next few games:

May 3 – at Kentucky. 5:30 p.m. (SEC+)
May 4 – at Kentucky. 1 p.m. (SEC+)
May 5 – at Kentucky. 12 p.m. (SEC+)
May 10-12 – Mississippi State

Considering how well Wood pitched in his start, Van Horn was asked if the fiery sophomore was being readied for more starts this year. Van Horn said starting would be in Wood’s future, ideally next season. He’ll continue to be used as middle and late relief, but the head Hog did say the future could become now in the case of injuries.

Van Horn doesn’t like to discuss injuries at length, but he said the injury that took the bat out of Jack Wagner’s hand last night might have been a cramp or perhaps a pulled muscle in what looked to be the hamstring area. Van Horn said he would know more after Wagner is examined today.

On the bright side, pitcher Will McEntire was more effective in his one inning of work than he has been lately. Van Horn said the secret to McEntire’ success on the mound is location, location, location. McEntire needs to land his cutter away or to the glove side to be effective, Van Horn said, but allowed that he did like to see the 90 mph velocity when the young man pitches.

Van Horn praised third baseman Jared Sprague-Lott’s versatility at the plate, commending him for beating out the throw to first base on his first-inning bunt that helped set the table for Aloy’s grand slam. Sprague-Lott, who is hitting .318, went 2 for 4 on the night.

With three series left to play in the regular season, the Razorbacks (38-7, 16-5 SEC) lead the SEC West by a game over No. 1 Texas A&M (39-6, 15-6), and are tied with Kentucky (38-9, 16-5) for the overall lead in the SEC.

The Hogs will settle things with the Wildcats this weekend, and after hosting Mississippi State at Baum-Walker Stadium May 10-12, the Razorbacks head down to Bryn-College Station to face the Aggies in the final series of the regular season May 17-19.

It should be an outstanding final three weeks of the regular season with the Razorbacks in the hunt for another conference crown.

Van Horn said that lefty Mason Molina will be back in the starting rotation this weekend in Lexington after missing last weekend’s series with Florida. He had a turned ankle. Before the injury, Molina had moved into the Day 2 starting role.

Molina might be back in that spot this weekend, or perhaps he will pitch on Sunday and right-hander Brady Tygart will move to Saturday, after two of his better outings this season in recent weeks. Either option is good for the Hogs. Left-handed ace Hagen Smith will be on the mound for Friday’s opener.