FAYETTEVILLE — Every year, some fans latch onto a preseason Dave Van Horn quote and condemn him at every opportunity when it shows any inkling of holding untrue. Four games into the 2023 campaign, it is already clear what this season’s is:
“Well right now, it’s the best I’ve ever had,” the Arkansas head coach said Jan. 20 of his squad’s pitching depth.
The criticism is justified to a degree. The staff as a whole has produced an ERA of 7.41 in 34 innings, and veteran pitchers such as Will McEntire and Zack Morris have contributed to those struggles.
However, as the old adage goes, baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. The first month of the season allows time for experimentation, and growing pains will occur.
While most players are still honing their crafts, the early results on right-handers Koty Frank and Brady Tygart in particular are very encouraging for Van Horn and company.
A graduate transfer from Nebraska, Frank has appeared in three of the Hogs’ four games and posted zeros in all of them. Aside from a run-scoring wild pitch in Friday’s opener against Texas, the Tushka, Oklahoma, native has been critical to calming high-intensity situations down for Arkansas.
Frank retired all three Longhorn hitters he faced in the seventh, ending Texas’ only scoring threat that night. He worked around a leadoff single against Oklahoma State as the first guy out of the bullpen to put up another zero en route to the Razorbacks’ run-rule victory over the Cowboys.
On Tuesday, Frank took the bump down four runs, and he turned things over to Tygart in a tie game. His outing began with one out and the bases loaded, and he escaped the jam with one pitch. After a 1-2-3 sixth inning, he worked around a one-out walk in the seventh with style, fanning the next two batters he faced.
“I think Frank, this is his best outing,” Van Horn said Tuesday. “This is his third time out on the mound in four games, and that’s the kind of guy he is. He likes to pitch.”
Frank does not throw as hard as other pitchers, but he has proven he does not have to do so to be effective. His location of pitches is what separates him from others, sophomore second baseman Peyton Stovall said last month
“He spots up unbelievably well,” Stovall said. “There’s nothing that he has thrown that’s over the plate, even in the fall. You can just tell he’s an older guy, he’s a veteran guy who’s been here before and he does things the right way. He comes in and gets his work done. He’s very poised out there, he’s very relaxed and stuff doesn’t get to him.”
Junior right fielder Jace Bohrofen built on that, pointing out that Frank’s stuff makes hitters susceptible to chasing balls.
“He plays to his strengths,” Bohrofen said. “He’s going to sink the ball, he’s going to keep it in the bottom of the zone, he’s going to try to make you chase and the balls that you think are down are lower, like the bottom of the zone, and you strike out.”
Van Horn said Tuesday that the Razorbacks could even turn to Frank as a starter, should they ever want or need to.
“He’s around the zone, and he’s experienced, and he can spin the ball and sink it,” Van Horn said.
Another experienced player who can spin and sink the ball is Tygart, who has begun his sophomore season emphatically. After garnering freshman All-America honors in 2022, the Hernando, Mississippi, native has punched out seven hitters in 3 ⅔ innings, picking up a save Friday against Texas and a win Tuesday versus Grambling.
Like Frank, Tygart found himself with two inherited runners against the Longhorns. Neither scored because he struck the next two hitters out, and he proceeded to go 1-2-3 in the ninth.
“I thought Brady did really good,” sophomore lefty Hagen Smith said Friday. “I knew when he came in, it was done after that. He’s been in so many situations closing, so I knew it was done.”
Tygart has clearly earned the respect and trust of his teammates and coaches, so when Arkansas was tied with Grambling after seven innings, there was really only one choice. He was scheduled to pitch during the game, but six outs was more than the plan called for, Van Horn said.
“He’s been really, really good,” Van Horn said. “His outing in Texas was the best I’ve ever seen him when you just talk about all of his pitches. We’ve seen him dominate with the breaking ball. I guess it was Friday night, he had them all working. Tonight, he threw a lot of fastballs, threw some good breaking balls. That top of their order, those guys aren’t scared, man. They go up there, and they take some borderline pitches, and they swing, and they swing hard.”
The first two Tigers Tygart saw went down on strikes, and he stranded a runner when he induced a pop-up to end the eighth. With a two-run cushion in the ninth, he did not waver after a leadoff single, bouncing back with a flyout sandwiched by another pair of strikeouts.
“When you have a guy like Brady Tygart who is pretty much nails in those situations, once we got those two runs, it was pretty much over,” junior center fielder Tavian Josenberger said.
Even though Arkansas has a long way to go as a pitching staff, it should feel confident having two right-handed hurlers who have proven themselves as guys to count on, especially in situations that require more than three outs.
Fans heading to Baum-Walker Stadium this weekend can expect to see healthy doses of Frank and Tygart when the Hogs take on Eastern Illinois at 2 p.m. CT Friday, noon Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. All three contests will stream live on the SEC Network Plus, accessible through the ESPN app.