Arkansas set to begin SEC play against Auburn

FAYETTEVILLE — University of Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn threw his own curveball on Thursday regarding the No. 6 Razorbacks’ pitching plans for their SEC series opener against Auburn today at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Van Horn said left-hander Hunter Hollan (3-0, 2.18 ERA) would start today’s series opener, with first pitch now at 4 p.m. due to weather concerns, while normal Friday ace Hagen Smith would be a “wild card” pitcher over the weekend. Van Horn said Smith (3-0, 1.40) was feeling “better than ever” and could fill any number of roles on the weekend, including Sunday starter if needed, for the Razorbacks (15-2), who have won 10 consecutive games.

“Wild card, closer, long reliever, finisher, however you want to say it,” Van Horn said to describe how Smith might work against the Tigers (13-3-1). “Good pitcher in the bullpen. His numbers are great. He knows how to do it. He just wants to help the team win in any role, and I appreciate that.”

Smith worked a similar role as a freshman last year during the postseason. Hollan will be starting on four day’s rest after throwing 77 pitches in a 15-6 rout of Louisiana Tech. Van Horn said he and pitching coach Matt Hobbs made the decision to pull Hollan a little early with an eye toward the weekend plan against Auburn.

“He actually likes pitching on shorter rest,” Van Horn said. “He’s told us that many a time, so I feel fine about it.”

Hollan will be opposed by 6-foot left-hander Tommy Vail (2-0, 0.63 ERA) who transitioned from mid-week to weekend starter with a one-inning “open” in Tuesday’s 12-11 win over Georgia Tech in 12 innings.

Arkansas junior Will McEntire (3-0, 3.48), coming off a 3-hit gem in a 6-1 win over Louisiana Tech, is slotted for Saturday’s 2 p.m. game against 6-3 freshman lefty Zach Crotchfelt (0-0, 4.41). Both teams have left their Sunday starters up in the air.

Auburn Coach Butch Thompson noted this will be the Tigers’ first true road trip after what he called a “switcheroo” that brought Southern Cal to Auburn on Feb. 24-26 in a series that was originally scheduled for Los Angeles. 

Arkansas took two of three games from the Tigers in Auburn, Ala., last season, then eliminated them from the College World Series with an 11-1 elimination game decision.

“Getting off to a good start, playing in a competitive environment, cold temperatures, all the things you try to prepare a team for,” Thompson said regarding the challenge in Fayetteville. 

“It’ll be good to see how we hold up. This team finished our season last year in Omaha, so it’ll be good to hook back up with them.”

The Tigers have three of the hottest hitters in Division I with first baseman Ike Irish (.465, 17 RBI), shortstop Cole Foster (.442, 2 HR, 17 RBI) and third baseman Bryson Ware (.435, 7, 21) ranking 18th, 38th and 48th in the nation, respectively in batting average.

Arkansas has six regulars hitting over .313, led by Jace Bohrofen (.436, 5, 17) and Jared Wegner (.387, 8, 29), plus part-time starters Harold Coll (.333, 1, 6) and Peyton Holt (.333, 1, 5). Coll went 5 for 9 with 5 RBI in a two-game sweep of UNLV this week.

“I thought he played great,” Van Horn said. “He’s swinging the bat. I imagine I’ll probably put him in there.”

Wegner will carry a 10-game hitting streak, the longest by a Razorback this season, into the series, while Bohrofen has hit in 8 straight and designated hitter Kendall Diggs (.333, 6, 20) has hit in 6 straight.

Hogs infielders Peyton Stovall (.345, 3, 15), Holt and Caleb Cali have been dealing with soreness and assorted nicks, so the outfielders Bohrofen, Wegner and Tavian Josenberger (.333, 2, 10) and first baseman Brady Slavens (.313, 1, 13) have been carrying much of the offensive load lately.

“In the video I’ve watched it looks like … great arms, a lot of left-handed at-bats,” Thompson said to describe the Hogs. “Bohrofen, I’m still trying to figure out what’s our pitching strategy to get the joker out.

“But just up and down their lineup you continue to see athleticism, left-handed power, switches and it looks like another typical Dave Van Horn Arkansas ball club.”