BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
A lot of the fanfare about the Arkansas baseball team’s powerful offensive start has been about the new guys at the top of the batting order.
But as SEC action got underway at Baum-Walker Stadium on Friday, one of the older Razorbacks – who happens to be the SEC’s active RBI leader with 160 – landed the biggest blast.
Brady Slavens’ three-run home run in the fourth inning erased his team’s early two-run deficit and sparked Arkansas to a 7-2 win over Auburn.
Slavens’ second homer of the season – along with nine innings of solid pitching from Hunter Hollan and Hagen Smith – allowed Arkansas (16-2, 1-0) to push its winning streak to 11.
Razorback head coach Dave Van Horn was confident that Slavens’ bomb was going to get out of the park in what was the opener of a league lid-lifting, three-game series with Auburn (13-4-1, 0-1).
“Right when it left the bat, I said it’s gone because it was hit high,” noted Van Horn, who goes to the outfield to check out the wind before games start.
“…But yeah, I don’t know how far it went out. All I know is when that guy turned his back around, I knew we scored three runs. I didn’t even watch the ball.”
The homer came off Auburn starting pitcher Tommy Vail, a sixth-year collegian who pitched four years for Notre Dame and last season at TCU.
Vail (2-1) had breezed through the first three innings while allowing just one hit.
But he walked both Peyton Stovall and Jared Wegner – Arkansas’ No. 2 and No. 3 hitters – to lead off the bottom of the fourth and bring up clean up hitter Slavens.
“First time through the order, I thought Tommy did such a nice job,” Thompson said. “I thought he looked the part and he was comfortable.
“Tommy still throws 3 2/3 and only gives two hits, but those two walks to start the fourth were huge.
“Slavens got his barrel in position there and he just got all over it.”
The Razorbacks’ five-run fourth inning also included Parker Rowland and Tavian Josenberger adding RBI singles against Tigers’ reliever John Armstrong.
That rally came after Josenberger appeared to make a diving catch in center field with one out that was overturned on review.
“Yeah, I thought I caught it,” Josenberger said. “I knew I had it, had it off the bat. I had it in my glove and hit the wall pretty hard. Honestly, I didn’t even know I picked the ball up off the ground. I thought it was in my glove the whole time. But yeah, it was close.”
Auburn would use that to take a 2-0 lead on Chad Green’s sacrifice fly later in the top of the fourth.
Arkansas, who out-hit Auburn 8-6, then exploded in the bottom of the inning.
“Arkansas is just opportunistic and this is an offensive ballpark,” Thompson said. “If you get your barrel in position, it’s out.
“Kason (Howell), our guy, got a home run, but nobody was on. Their two walks were huge.”
Arkansas would add a pair of insurance runs in sixth on Peyton Stovall’s sacrifice fly and an RBI single by Wegner.
Wegner extended his team-leading hitting streak to 11 and this team-best RBI total to 30.
“This whole ballgame came down to how they scored in their two innings,” Thompson said. “The second inning where they got two runs, we had an error, an HBP, a bunt, then a swinging bunt. We were just not making plays and that allowed them keep going.
“They know how to play this park and be opportunistic.”
Hollan (4-0) started and went the six innings, giving up two runs on six hits, before previous Friday starter Smith hurled a hitless and scoreless final three frames for a save.
Hollan allowed Howell’s third-inning homer and Green’s fourth inning sacrifice fly while walking and fanning three each.
He found out he was going to get Friday’s start when Razorback pitching coach Matt Hobbs took him out last Sunday.
“So, I came out of the game last Sunday, and I was through five with like 77 pitches or something like that,” Hollan said. “Hobbs went to shake my hand, and I was like ‘No’.
“Then he told me, he was like ‘Congratulations. You’re going to get the start on Friday.’ I was like ‘That’s the only thing you could have said right now that would make this OK.’ I got pretty excited. I was excited for the challenge to start on Friday night.”
Smith, who believes he will be able to pitch again this weekend, fanned five and walked two in his trio of innings in his first relief appearance of the season.
“If we had scored another couple of runs, we might not have put him in,” Van Horn said of Smith. “But they’re explosive and five runs can happen pretty quick whenever the wind is blowing out the way it is.
“I told the team before the game that no lead was safe either way — if they had it or we had it. You have to keep scoring. When you have this type of weather and fly balls are blowing out of the park, you can score runs quick.”
It was the first relief appearance this season for Smith, who had 15 starts last season, but did get two saves in five relief appearances late last season.
“Yeah, I think it helped a little bit, just a mindset thing,” Smith said. “Last year, I got to experience it. A bunch of older guys in the bullpen last year, so they helped me out during the end of the year.”
Smith was a willing participant in his role change, brought on in part by injuries to other Arkansas pitchers.
“I think it was the beginning of the week,” Smith said about when he was told about the change. “Me and Coach Hobbs had a conversation, he was telling me that he’s moving Hunter to Friday, I would come out of the ‘pen, which I have no problem with at all. Hunter’s the best Friday guy in the league, so I knew it was going to be good either way.”
Thompson was impressed with the two Arkansas pitchers, but lamented not adding to his team’s 2-0 lead early.
“I have a ton of respect for those guys,” Thompson said. “Hollan is a crossfire (guy), but I thought he was vulnerable at times. But I didn’t think we capitalized when he was in.
“We have seen Smith before and he has a big arm. But I didn’t think we did enough against Hollan, who is a good pitcher, but there were some misses in there and then there was some times when he held his ground.”
The two teams are scheduled to meet both Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
“It’s hard to win in this league,” Van Horn said. “Auburn can really hit. They had a really good pitcher going today. We won the game and now we have to find a way to get tomorrow’s game.”
That’s the same mindset for Thompson.
“We had a ton of guys get their first SEC experience,” Thompson said. “Hopefully we will settle down and in those moments hopefully do more the rest of the weekend.
“…It is just one game at a time. This is two-plus decades of coming here and being in the SEC and just trying to get a game and then another game.
“Right now, it is can we just come out and play well enough to get a game. Trust the process and just try to have some good at bats, make the routine plays, shove the ball in the strike zone and win a game.”
Photo by John D. James