Dave Van Horn reflects on Arkansas baseball postseason | Whole Hog Sports (2024)

FAYETTEVILLE — In an expansive mood with his Arkansas Razorbacks deep in the pre-Major League Baseball Draft stage of their roster management, Coach Dave Van Horn spent time in reflection on what ailed his 2024 club late in the season during a lengthy video conference on Wednesday.

“I wish we would have pitched better the last couple of games, but we didn’t,” Van Horn said in one of several references to the lack of quality starting pitching the last month of the season.

Arkansas went 3-7 in its final games ahead of the NCAA Tournament, losing road series at Kentucky and Texas A&M, which both made it to the College World Series semifinals. The Razorbacks still managed the No. 5 national seed and hosting opportunities through the super regionals due to their sizzling start.

However, the Razorbacks didn’t get through the NCAA Fayetteville Regional. After building an 8-0 lead against regional No. 4 seed Southeast Missouri State, they had to rally from an 8-8 tie in the fifth inning to win 17-9 in their NCAA opener.

Kansas State scored six runs on ace Hagen Smith in a bizarre fifth inning and held on for a 7-6 victory in the winner’s bracket game. Then SEMO bounced back for a 6-3 win at Baum-Walker Stadium to cap Arkansas’ season with a 44-16 record.

So, while the Razorbacks won five of the last six SEC West titles and advanced to the College World Series three times in that span, they have now lost in consecutive home regionals.

“The league that we play in is amazing,” Van Horn said. “To try to get through it every year and finish at the top is very hard. Sometimes, like this year, we just didn’t play well at the end of the year.

“No talking around it, that’s just the way it was. We didn’t play good. We didn’t pitch good. We have a couple games where we hit the ball extremely hard, but yeah, it was disappointing the way it finished against SEMO.”

Arkansas out-hit Kansas State 13-5 in the winner’s bracket game and committed no errors to the Wildcats’ two. But the Hogs could not put together a huge inning like their opponents, who capitalized on a pair of walks, a pair of dink singles and a three-run home run from regional MVP Kaelen Culpepper.

Van Horn discussed the difference’s between the 7-6 loss to Kansas State and Arkansas’ 20-5 stunner of a loss against TCU in the winner’s bracket last season.

“The year before we just played a really good team,” he said. “The 2023 team, honestly, we were exhausted. All the injuries.

“The 2024 team against Kansas State, you look at the line score, that was strange: 6 runs, 13 hits, no errors [versus] 7 runs, 5 hits, 2 errors. You’re going to win that game 9 out of 10 times or more. We hit a lot of balls hard, didn’t go our way.”

Smith (9-2, 2.04 ERA), a consensus All-American and national pitcher of the year by multiple outlets, led the nation with 17.3 strikeouts per game. He is likely to be in line for a top-10 selection in the draft as potentially the first pitcher off the board.

The Razorback won his first 13 starts but lost his last three against Texas A&M, Kentucky and Kansas State. The left-hander allowed 3 or more earned runs only 3 times: 3 in the first inning of a 6-4 win over James Madison in the season opener, 3 in a 7-5 win over Mississippi State on May 10 and 6 in the loss against Kentucky.

“He’s probably going to go in the top-10 picks,” Van Horn said. “I mean, you take away really two innings of his year, he was unbelievable.”

Indeed, nine of the 19 earned runs Smith allowed came in those two innings, and without them his ERA would have been 1.10.

Van Horn discussed the draft status of a wide swath of draft-eligible players on the current roster. One of the more interesting takes he gave was on right fielder Kendall Diggs, who played with a more significant shoulder injury than was first believed.

Diggs was hitting .352 with 11 RBI through 15 games when he injured his shoulder on a head-first slide at second base in a win over McNeese State. He suffered a complete tear of his labrum and struggled to match his early season production, finishing with a .229 batting average, 7 home runs and 34 RBI.

“He slid headfirst on a wet field or an over-watered field — whatever you want to call it,” Van Horn said. “We all kind of groaned in the dugout. We didn’t know it at the time. He shook it off.

“Well, it’s a complete tear in his labrum. I think it’s like front and back. He is right now in the process of getting lined up to have surgery to get that fixed. He could still sign and be drafted. I think somebody might draft him.”

Van Horn openly discussed the potential of Diggs returning.

“We’d love to have him back,” he said. “He would have to miss all of fall. It’s his non-throwing shoulder. It’s his left shoulder. You’ve got to give him credit, how tough was he to play all year long with that injury?

“He hurt it a couple of more times throughout the season. He ran into the wall at Kentucky. There was another time he hurt it. He made diving catches. He just played through it. Hats off to him.

“It really hurt his offense. It altered his swing. It took away a little quickness. I know it probably had to hurt when he swung at certain pitches in certain areas. In a way, he disguised it. I’ve got to give credit to him with how tough he was. I hope we have an opportunity to coach him next year, because he can get back and play.”

Dave Van Horn reflects on Arkansas baseball postseason | Whole Hog Sports (2024)
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