Hunter Hollan, Hagen Smith Lead Arkansas Past Top-Ranked LSU

Image credit: Arkansas lefthander Hunter Hollan (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Louisiana State came into Friday’s series opener against Arkansas leading the nation in scoring, averaging 11 runs per game. The Tigers were fifth in batting (.331), first in on-base percentage (.467) and fifth in slugging (.580).

That high-powered offense never had a chance to get going Friday, however. Lefthanders Hunter Hollan and Hagen Smith combined to quiet the Tigers and lead the Razorbacks to a 9-3 victory in 10 innings. With the win, Arkansas (20-2, 4-0) extended its winning streak to 15 games and became the first team this season to beat LSU (19-3, 2-2) in Alex Box Stadium.

For the first four weeks of the season, Smith and Hollan bookended the Arkansas rotation. But ahead of last week’s SEC opening series against Auburn, coach Dave Van Horn reworked the pitching staff, moving Hollan to the front of the rotation and Smith to the bullpen, calling him the staff’s wild card.

On Friday in Baton Rouge, Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs played their ace and wild card perfectly. The game started out as a pitcher’s duel and Hollan matched LSU righthander Paul Skenes, a projected top-five draft pick. Arkansas pushed ahead with a run in the fourth inning, giving Hollan a slight cushion.

Then with Dylan Crews and Tommy White, two of the most dangerous hitters in the country, coming up to face Hollan for the third time with one out and one on in the sixth inning, Arkansas called in Smith. He struck out both Crews and White to snuff out the budding rally.

Tasked with silencing the LSU offense, Hollan and Smith nearly made a one-run lead stand up. Hollan scattered three hits and a walk in 5.1 innings. Smith kept the Tigers off the scoreboard until Brady Neal tied the game with an eighth-inning home run and then escaped further trouble to send the game to extra innings tied at 1.

The Arkansas offense finally broke through with eight runs in the 10th inning. The Razorbacks took the lead for good on a pinch-hit, three-run home run from freshman Reese Robinett and then piled on five more runs.

While Crews hit a two-run home run off Smith in the 10th, it was too little too late. Smith—Arkansas’ fireman—had done his job, holding LSU to three runs on five hits and three walks in 4.2 innings. He struck out eight batters.

Hollan and Smith combined to hold LSU to three runs on eight hits and four walks, while striking out 15. The three runs matched LSU’s lowest total of the season.

Their performance was just what the Razorbacks needed.

“I’m ecstatic about it, honestly,” Van Horn said.

Using Smith for 4.2 innings and 80 pitches means that he won’t be available for the Razorbacks in Saturday’s doubleheader (the series finale was moved up from Sunday due to a poor forecast). But to secure a series opening win—and become the first team to beat LSU in a game Skenes started—it was worth it.

Arkansas’ use of Smith going forward will be something to watch. He last week pitched twice on the weekend, throwing 44 pitches in three innings on Friday against Auburn and then coming back for two outs and seven pitches in the finale. He last year mostly pitched as a starter as a freshman but did pitch on back-to-back days in the super regional at North Carolina, throwing a total of 2.1 innings.

With Arkansas dealing with a few key injuries on its pitching staff—Jaxon Wiggins, Brady Tygart and Koty Frank all projected to fill key roles this spring but are now out (Wiggins and Frank are out for the year and Tygart is still a few weeks from returning)—Smith’s ability to stabilize the back of the bullpen and pitch in a multi-inning fireman role is crucial. It’s unfair to even compare his role to that of Kevin Kopps in 2021, but no team in the country knows how valuable it is to have a true fireman in the bullpen who can enter a game in any high-leverage situation. On Friday, at least, that’s what it looked like for the Razorbacks.

Meanwhile, Arkansas is in a situation to use Smith that way because of the way Hollan has developed since arriving in Fayetteville after transferring from San Jacinto (Texas) JC. He began the season as the team’s No. 3 starter but last week moved to the front of the rotation.

Taking on the No. 1 starter role while facing SEC West foes Auburn and LSU has not fazed Hollan. He last week turned in a quality start against Auburn in his SEC debut and this week quieted perhaps the best lineup in the country. He’s now 4-0, 1.97 with 31 strikeouts and 10 walks in 32 innings.

Hollan isn’t the most overpowering pitcher, but attacks hitters with a low-90s fastball and a quality breaking ball. His feel and mentality on the mound make him tough to face, as LSU learned Friday.

It might not have been the way Arkansas drew things up going into the season, but the duo of Hollan and Smith is going to make life difficult for a lot of opposing hitters this spring. The ace and wild card have the Razorbacks one win away from a series win in Baton Rouge and make them one of the most dangerous teams in the SEC and beyond.

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