Molina gets opening nod as Arkansas reshuffles pitching deck for NCAA Regional

By Dudley E. Dawson
on 2024-05-30 16:34 PM


FAYETTEVILLE – Before the season started, there’s no doubt Arkansas baseball coaches and fans envisioned the NCAA Tournament getting underway with a set starting pitcher rotation ready to win the three games needed to move on.

Nothing changed for most of the season as ace Hagen Smith (9-1, 1.48), Brady Tygart (4-3, 3.94) and Mason Molina (4-2, 4.04) combined to form the SEC’s best and of the nation’s top trios

But when the Fayetteville Regional arrives on Friday, that’s not how it is going to go down after some missteps down the stretch.

Molina, dropped from the rotation but back right after a brilliant stint in the bullpen, will get the opening start when top five national seed and regional top seed Arkansas (43-16) faces fourth seed Southeastern Missouri State (34-25) in the event’s 2 p.m. opener.

Smith will be ready for game two against either second seed Louisiana Tech (45-17) or third-seeded Kansas State (32-24) – who face each other Friday at 7 – while injured Tygart will not even be on the 27-man roster for the weekend.

“It was just so good for so long, and then there was a little crack here and a crack there,” Van Horn said. “You start to see it, you feel it and it kind of takes you aback. They carried us there. We knew they were going to throw strikes and if we score a few runs, we probably were going to win the game.

“The bullpen has done a great job all year for the most part, especially the first time through. When we’ve had to recycle a guy, maybe not so good. We’ve got some guys that have done a great job.

Van Horn did not want to announce his starter during Thursday morning’s press conference and wanted to wait until later on in the day, but Arkansas confirmed it later in the day via X.

“I’m going to wait until the teams have all practiced,” Van Horne said. “Bottom line. Let them practice without knowing who they’re facing. There you go.”

Molina had retired 15 of the last 16 batters he has faced while throwing three scoreless innings in Arkansas’ SEC Western Division clinching win at Texas A&M two more scoreless innings with just one it against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament.

He has not walked a batter and allowed just one hit in those five innings.

Smith went through that scenario last season and ended up being arguably college baseball’s best pitcher this season.

“Yeah, that was huge for him,” Molina said. “When they had told me about him going to the bullpen, I thought it was going to help a lot. You know, going into the bullpen, you can’t really think about anything, you just have to go out there and attack and compete.

“Ultimately, I think that’s what he needed was to go out there and trust his stuff and just attack hitters.”

Tygart struggled with control issues in pair of abbreviated starts and then was held out of the the final regular season series.

He did pitch a scoreless first inning in the SEC Tournament against Kentucky, but gave up three runs without recording an out in his second inning of work.

‘“It’s more like a shoulder,” Van Horn said. “…They are going to have to do some testing. I don’t know the exact word, but it is not a ligament. Shoulder is not a problem, but it is something in there that needs a lot of time.”

Van Horn was asked if Tygart might return if Arkansas advances ion to a Super Regional.

“Well, I don’t know,” Van Horn said. “We’ll see. I want guys when they get on the mound, they feel good about how they feel and they go pitch and not have something going on. The mental part of this game won’t let you perform if you’re thinking like that and if you have got something going on, which he does.”

Van Horn noted that Arkansas has had to pitch without an effective Tygart the last few weeks.

“Well, if he was pitching like he could and has in the past then, I would say it is a big loss,” Van Horn said. “If you are talking now, it is a big loss from two months ago, month and a half, but we have been playing down the stretch with short starts and out of the pen, scrambling, I would rather start guys that you are not just on pins and needles on how it is going to go.

“I mean that is just kind of what has been going on when he is on the mound. We just didn’t know how he felt.”

Cooper Dossett (3-1, 5.17) will also not be available for Arkansas and is out for the season per Van Horn after getting injured against Texas A&M on May 18.

“Yeah, he won’t pitch anymore this season, but he is not going to need surgery,” Van Horn said.

Van Horn did noted that Christian Foutch (0-0, 0.86, 19 strikeouts in 21 innings) is now in a position where he could be used multiple times in a weekend.

“We could use him twice,” Van Horn said. “Not a problem. We’re good with it. Now, if we put him in and he just kept going and he ended up throwing three or four innings, then we probably wouldn’t, unless it was maybe just one hitter, but that would be his call on that.

“But I’m comfortable using him an inning or two and then bringing him back and using him another inning or two.”

Photo by John D. James

(Last updated: 2024-05-30 16:34 PM)