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Morris steps up in relief

by Bob Holt | May 25, 2023 at 1:57 a.m.
Arkansas reliever Zack Morris pitched five innings, giving up only three hits and one earned run and striking out five, replacing starter Cody Adcock in the third inning with Texas A&M up by three runs. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

HOOVER, Ala. -- Zack Morris pitched a season-long five innings for the Arkansas Razorbacks on Wednesday to help them beat Texas A&M 6-5 at the SEC Tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

"Zack Morris was the story," University of Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "Just a super job by Zack."

Morris, a junior left-hander from Cabot, held the Aggies to 3 hits, 1 run and 1 walk with 5 strikeouts to allow the Razorbacks to get back in the game and win in 11 innings after they fell behind 3-0 in the third.

"Honestly he was just keeping us off balance, mixing his fastball, slider, changeup both sides of the plate," Texas A&M second baseman Austin Bost said. "Obviously give credit to him, because he just did a great job. Went out there and shut us down, just filled up the zone, and that was about it."

Morris said he had all four of his pitches working, including his curveball.

"And I kind of found my slider towards the end," he said. "I just felt like I started to find the groove with each of the four."

Morris came into the game with a 7.52 earned-run average because of his struggles earlier in the season. After his first 10 appearances, his ERA was 10.80.

"Zack got off to a slow start this season," Van Horn said. "We tried to stick with him.

"He kept working. He wanted us to know earlier in the season, 'Don't give up on me. I've been there before. I want to do everything I can to help the team.'

"It seemed like right after that we gave him the ball, and he had a pretty good outing."

Morris pitched two scoreless innings against Lipscomb to start a stretch in which he has held opponents to 1 run, 4 hits and 4 walks with 17 strikeouts over 13 innings.

"He's just gotten better and better," Van Horn said. "We have a lot of confidence in him.

"Going forward, it's big having that veteran lefty in the pen that knows how to pitch."

Here's the deal

Arkansas had the winning run 90 feet from home plate with one out in the 10th inning after Caleb Cali advanced to third base and Peyton Holt to second base on Harold Coll's first sacrifice bunt of the season.

With catcher Parker Rowland, a .176 hitter, up next it seemed to be a good time for Coach Dave Van Horn to use a pinch hitter.

Van Horn said he definitely was thinking of going to a pinch-hitter, but one problem with that -- backup catcher Hudson Polk had been throwing up the previous night and earlier in the day and was on an IV to receive fluids.

"It's just one thing after another," Van Horn said of yet another player being injured or ill. "That was a little bit of my issue."

Van Horn said he also figured Texas A&M might walk a pinch hitter -- options on the bench included Ben McLaughlin (batting .343) and Hunter Grimes (.250) -- to load the bases and set up a double play.

"My thinking at the time was ... let's just bunt [Cali] in and go home," Van Horn said. "It didn't happen. Luckily we found a way to win."

The Razorbacks won in the 11th inning when Kendall Diggs hit a home run after Rowland bunted and was field by Ty Sexton -- who easily threw out Cali at the plate -- and Tavian Josenberger was retired on a groundout.

"We've worked on it a lot, but we weren't supposed to bunt it to the third base side," Van Horn said of the play with Rowland. "I don't know if the ball ran away [from Rowland], he got his bat [positioned] wrong.

"He got it down, but he didn't bunt it the right way."

Van Horn was asked, if he pinch hit for Rowland and Polk feeling ill, who would have been the Razorbacks' emergency catcher?

"I don't really have a third-string catcher," Van Horn said. "It's probably [Peyton] Holt, but he's playing second base now.

"So I asked a couple guys at practice the other day about emergency catcher, and we had [Holt] catch a little bullpen, but that's kind of where we're at."

Holt is starting at second base because Peyton Stovall is out with a season-ending shoulder injury. Coll, another middle infielder, started at shortstop because John Bolton has an ankle injury.

Grand scheme

Jared Wegner hit Arkansas' fifth grand slam this season when he put the Razorbacks ahead 5-4 in the seventh inning against Texas A&M.

Peyton Stovall also hit a grand slam when the Razorbacks beat the Aggies 7-5 on April 27 at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.

Kendall Diggs hit two grand slams this season in victories at LSU and over Mississippi State. Brady Slavens hit one against Ole Miss.

According to the SEC Network, Wegner hit the third grand slam by a Razorback in the SEC Tournament along with Chad Spanberger against Auburn in 2017 and by Hunter Wilson against Florida in 2018.

Wegner's grand slam was the 19th in SEC Tournament history and first since Wilson's five years ago.

LSU on deck

The No. 4 Razorbacks play No. 3 LSU at approximately 4:30 p.m. today in a winner's bracket game. The winner will have Friday off and advance to Saturday's semifinals.

LSU took two of three games from the Razorbacks at Baton Rouge in the teams' regular-season series.

Arkansas beat the Tigers 9-3 in 10 innings in the series opener, then LSU swept a doubleheader 12-2 in seven innings and 14-5.

"Well, they were really good when we played them, and I think they're really good now," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "I think they're as talented as any team in the country, and they're dangerous. They're very offensive."

LSU hasn't announced a starting pitcher, but Van Horn said he imagines junior right-hander Paul Skenes (10-1, 1.77 ERA) will go for the Tigers.

Skenes, who has 164 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings, was voted by conference coaches as the SEC Pitcher of the Year. He held Arkansas to 1 run, 2 hits and 3 walks with 12 strikeouts over 7 innings when the Razorbacks beat the Tigers in 10 innings.

"He's incredible," Van Horn said. "They've got a lot of good arms.

"No lead is safe. If we have a lead, we know that we've got to keep scoring. But they're obviously a really, really good team."

Sophomore left-hander Hagen Smith (8-1, 2.56 ERA) is expected to start for Arkansas.

Career game

South Carolina's James Hicks, a redshirt junior right-hander from Conway, made his first start against an SEC team and went a career-long 6 2/3 innings in the Gamecocks' 9-0 victory over Georgia on Tuesday.

"It was awesome," Hicks said. "It's something I've dreamed of all my life pretty much and something I've been working towards.

"Really grateful for the opportunity, and I just wanted to leave it all out there, hold nothing back. So I'm pretty happy with how it went."

Hicks (7-1) held the Bulldogs to 4 hits and 2 walks and had 6 strikeouts. He threw 90 pitches, including 63 strikes in lowering his season ERA to 3.61.

Hicks in his second season at South Carolina after playing two seasons at Crowder Community College in Neosho, Mo.

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