Highs, Lows, and Everything in Between
After a nine-game slate filled with upsets, walk-offs, and extra-inning baseball, the Southeastern Conference was the ultimate winner of the College Baseball Showdown. The SEC posted a 6-3 record against the Big 12, with all three of the conference’s representatives earning two wins and dropping one game each.
Some teams certainly performed better than others, but they all showed considerable strengths and weaknesses over the weekend. And, more importantly, all three teams presented questions—unknowns—for fans across the country to watch unravel as the season progresses.
No. 14 Arkansas Razorbacks
Win vs. No. 38 Texas, 3-2
Loss vs. No. 12 TCU, 6-18
Win vs. No. 20 Oklahoma State, 18-1
Overall Record: 2-1
If you were in the market for a team full of new and undiscovered superstars just waiting for their chance to make a statement in SEC baseball, look no further than the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Easily the most pleasant surprise from Arkansas’ successful weekend was transfer Jared Wegner, fresh off a First Team All-Big East performance with Creighton last year. He started the weekend batting fifth in the lineup, but by game three, Wegner had firmly cemented his position in the three-hole. Looking to bring runners home? Wegner had nine RBIs. Want someone who knows how to get on-base, no matter the cost? Wegner drew two walks and a hit-by-pitch in addition to his six hits, four of which were for extra bags. And his casual single into left field against TCU? Yeah, that thing had a 115-mph exit velo off the bat. The kid is insane.
And, speaking of newcomers to the team, it would be a crime not to mention that 20 different players suited up wearing Cardinal and White for the very first time in their collegiate careers. If even a quarter of those turn out to be the type of superstar that Van Horn has come to expect of his athletes, then Arkansas will be set for not only the 2023 season, but many years to come.
The Razorbacks’ offense is absolutely explosive at times, but when it flounders, it falls hard.
We saw these issues for two-thirds of the weekend tournament. Though they squeaked out a win over Texas on Friday night, that was more attributable to a great performance from the pitching rotation (see below) than to an impressive offense. That night, the team struck out 12 times, and the first four batters in the lineup—meant to be the most offensively gifted men on the team—combined for only three hits.
The night-and-day difference between this performance and the team’s Sunday showing, a mind-blowing 18-run affair, cannot be overstated. Maybe Friday was an off-night, maybe Sunday was a fluke, or maybe the team’s offensive capabilities actually lie somewhere between the two performances. Either way, the lack of clarity is a concerning way to start the season.
I’d wager that this inconsistency will work itself out with a few more weeks of play. However, until that happens, Arkansas needs to work on finding a rhythm instead of walking into a game unsure of whether its batters would score three runs or 18.
Less than two weeks ago, it was announced that projected weekend starter Jaxon Wiggins would miss the entire 2023 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The fallout left fans wondering if the Razorbacks still had the pitching talent necessary to succeed in the coming season.
With three games under the team’s belt, I can give a confident answer of “probably so.”
Lefty Hagen Smith continued to solidify his position as one of the best young arms in the nation, with the sophomore striking out eight and giving up only one hit across five frames in his start against Texas. In other words, Arkansas definitely has a Friday starter. Another sophomore, closer Brady Tygart, bookended the Razorbacks’ stellar night on the mound by striking out three of his five batters faced and picking up his first save of the season. This duo is young, but you wouldn’t know it from their performances.
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, this success didn’t carry into Saturday, which saw Dave Van Horn make a total of eight calls to the bullpen. Five of those relievers did not even last a full inning, and the pitching rotation against TCU posted a brutal 18.00 ERA in addition to their 11 walks.
It’s clear that Arkansas has a solid core of strong and controlled arms. For instance, junior lefty Hunter Hollan looked great in his debut with the Razorbacks, striking out five and giving up only one earned run. But to win a conference series in the SEC, a team needs more than a few good hurlers to get them through the weekend. Whether or not the less-successful men on the mound can rise to the level of their teammates may ultimately make or break the Razorbacks’ season.
No. 37 Missouri Tigers
Loss vs. No. 20 Oklahoma State, 3-5
Win vs. No. 38 Texas, 6-5
Win vs. No. 12 TCU, 9-8
Overall Record: 2-1
Although social media has parroted that the Tigers were just “happy to be here,” a nod to their position as one of only two teams in the tournament not ranked in the top-25, the Mizzou offense suggested otherwise.
The Tigers stayed within two runs of Oklahoma State, and then seemingly carried this confidence boost into the next game, recording 14 hits against Texas. In that same matchup, the lineup-opening one-two punch of Luke Mann and Cam Chick stole the spotlight, with each man going three-for-five at the plate and posting a combined six hits, three runs, two RBIs, and two stolen bases.
And, above all else, the Tigers’ aggressiveness can be summed up with one simple word: gutsy. I mean, calling a bunt single with nobody on base? Larger-than-necessary leadoffs while already up by a few runs? Stealing third base on a right-handed pitcher with a lefty at the plate? This mindset paid off in the end, with an extra-inning double-steal solidifying the Tigers’ win over then-undefeated TCU.
Not many managers have the aforementioned guts to coach as boldly as Steve Bieser. This style of playing doesn’t always work, but when it does, it makes Mizzou unpredictable in the best way.
The Tigers’ biggest weakness appeared to be their tendency to let small mistakes snowball into larger and often-irrecoverable blunders.
Mizzou’s defense managed to put up eight goose eggs on Oklahoma State’s scorecard but still dropped that game thanks to a five-run second inning. There, one single led to another, and by the time Mizzou recovered, the Tigers’ fate was already sealed.
Mizzou’s second game nearly paralleled the first, with Texas scoring its first run on three free bags off of multiple throwing errors. The Longhorns scored another two runs in the fourth before the Tigers finally escaped from an unnecessarily created, bases-loading situation. Thankfully, they showed tenacity in the second matchup and managed to recover before walking off their first win of the season.
Lastly, without minimizing the Tigers’ accomplishments—seriously, they played great—it’s important to consider that although Mizzou outhit TCU by seven and had four fewer errors, they still needed an extra inning to get the job done. A win is a win, yes, but if the Horned Frogs hadn’t shot themselves in the foot at the last minute, I’m not sure the results would have been the same.
In each case, the damage could have been minimized far earlier than what actually played out on the field. Going forward, the Tigers need to place an emphasis on keeping their composure and carrying a level head through all 27 outs.
After this weekend, there’s no doubt that the Tigers will be better than many people expected. The lingering question, now, is whether it will be enough for the Tigers to compete for ten grueling weeks in the SEC.
Last season, the Tigers were just one win shy of making the SEC Tournament. Now, Mizzou is presented with the difficult task of proving that last year’s ending doesn’t define this year’s beginning. A 2-1 record to start 2023 is certainly a great start on that path, especially considering the team’s one loss was one of the closest games of the weekend.
Will Mizzou surprise everyone by sweeping their next 53 games en route to the program’s first national title since 1954? Probably not. But other teams in the Southeastern Conference should try their best to avoid underestimating this scrappy ball club, at least at this point in the season.
No. 13 Vanderbilt Commodores
Loss vs. No. 12 TCU, 4-11
Win vs. No. 20 Oklahoma State, 11-9
Win vs. No.38 Texas, 12-2
Overall Record: 2-1
Although they sometimes struggled to bring baserunners home, the Commodores had a phenomenal at-the-plate presence throughout the tournament.
Most notably, this manifested itself in the team’s ability to put the ball into play, rather than accepting frustrating strikeouts at the plate. In fact, Vanderbilt posted two of the three lowest strikeout numbers of the whole tournament against TCU and Oklahoma State, being struck out just six and four times, respectively. In that sense, it’s quite clear that the Vandy Boys are comfortable waiting for their pitch and are not inclined to chase balls outside the zone.
According to Vanderbilt Athletics’ radio broadcast team, this was largely the result of the team’s near-sole use of wooden bats during the offseason, which allowed each player on the roster to “find their swing” and drill down on the fundamentals. A later start to the team’s fall season also meant that the Commodores had two extra weeks of strength and conditioning training, which paired nicely with the players’ commitment to additional bulking (with some players, like Enrique Bradfield Jr., putting on upwards of 15 pounds).
If the Commodores can pair this newfound strength with their already-productive plate appearances, it will only be a matter of time before runs quickly begin piling up before opposing defenses even realize what hit them.
Early reports indicated that Vanderbilt was posturing itself as a pitching-oriented squad, intending to win with tight and low-scoring affairs as opposed to offensive shootouts. Unfortunately for fans of the Black and Gold, this does not appear to be the case.
The Commodores’ starting pitchers averaged about four innings on the mound, forcing head coach Tim Corbin to call to the bullpen earlier than many expected and putting unnecessary pressure on the team’s less-developed arms.
The return of senior Sam Hliboki, back on the mound for the first time in 22 months after missing the 2022 season due to injury, was meant to be a triumphant homecoming. The senior admittedly showed promise, striking out three of the first four batters he faced, but a five-run sixth inning by TCU signaled that he still has some dust to shake.
Junior Hunter Owen looked to change course against Oklahoma State, starting his season by giving up two earned runs across the game’s first four frames, but his four-man bullpen rotation gave up another five and almost caused the Commodores to blow what was, at one point, an 11-2 lead.
Sunday was better, with Devin Futrell and Bryce Cunningham allowing only three hits and two earned runs against Texas, but giving up a total 22 runs on the weekend cannot be the new norm if Vanderbilt wants to use its arms as the main driving force into a potential postseason run.
At first glance, the Commodores show promise in their ability to force opposing teams to make mistakes. The big question, however, is whether Vanderbilt can take advantage of these moments of weakness to strike hard and inflict mortal wounds as opposed to mere papercuts.
Take, for example, the top of the sixth inning in their game against TCU. There, the Commodores prolonged their at-bats long enough to load the bases without even a single hit. At that point, the ballgame was still knotted at two, and Vanderbilt looked poised to blow the roof off Globe Life Park. Instead, the Commodores got just one run across, stranding three and dropping what was otherwise their biggest scoring opportunity of the entire weekend.
Vanderbilt has proven that its squad can create advantageous positions for itself, but it has yet to convince us that it knows how to capitalize on those instances.