FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas catcher Alex Gosser said he got chills after realizing what was happening in Baum Stadium on Friday night.
The freshman heard the applause when he walked to the plate for his first at bat as a Razorback. He didn’t think too much of it. Then Gosser noticed something else.
“I turned and everybody was standing up,” Gosser said Sunday. “It meant the whole world to me. A lot of players kind of talked to me about, you know, they’ve never seen that before. And just me being from Arkansas and being a Razorback fan my whole life, it just … I wanted to cry. But I wasn’t going to do that.”
Gosser, who was on track to redshirt, was pressed into duty with two weeks left in the regular season because of injuries to Jake Wise (concussion) and Blake Baxendale (hamstring). The North Little Rock native made his collegiate debut behind the plate and played an important role in a 3-2 win that set the tone for a weekend series the Razorbacks had to claim with NCAA Regional hopes at stake.
Gosser was a solid target for Arkansas starting pitcher Trey Killian, who retired the first 14 batters faced and allowed just two hits over eight innings. He went 0-for-4 hitting in the eight hole, but the offense didn’t matter. Arkansas outfielder Joe Serrano, who had the game-winning hit, said the new catcher deserved praise.
“Honestly, in my mind, the player of the game was Alex Gosser,” Serrano said.
Killian agreed: “Gosser was outstanding. Especially for a freshman to go in in a Friday night SEC game, hasn’t been on the field all year. … He was amazing.”
The collegiate debut ended what had been a season-long conversation between Gosser and Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn.
Arkansas wrapped up preseason practice with Gosser as its third catcher, but there was no debate Wise would log most of the innings if he remained healthy as a senior. So Arkansas hoped Gosser could redshirt, but needed him ready in case injuries caught up to the Razorbacks this season.
He has traveled with Arkansas throughout most of SEC play, missing only the Florida series. Gosser nearly had to play at times, too.
There was a midweek series when Wise was out of the lineup with a stomach bug and Baxendale had to leave after suffering an injury. But Wise grabbed the gear, finished the game and was healthy enough to play again the next day.
It happened again at Ole Miss, when Wise missed the series finale because of the concussion. Baxendale suffered a hamstring injury during the game and couldn’t catch the final inning. Arkansas elected to put relief pitcher Jackson Lowery, who had catching experience in high school, behind the plate to finish the game.
“It’s been pretty intense,” Gosser said. “(Van Horn) keeps telling me it’s on his shoulders. Me and him have been fighting it … He wants to keep my redshirt and we got to a point where we were like, OK, at this point in the year we’re not going to pull it unless Jake or Blake goes out for the whole year.”
Neither catcher has been sidelined for the rest of the season, but Arkansas faced another dilemma preparing for Texas A&M. Baxendale was out with the hamstring injury and Wise hadn’t passed concussion tests. So Arkansas considered alternate plans to try to preserve Gosser’s redshirt like starting Lowery or Tyler Spoon.
But Gosser said it didn’t make sense to hold out any longer.
“I was fighting it,” Gosser said. “But it got to the point where I was like, you know, this is for the team. Why would I be traveling if it wasn’t willing to pull my redshirt?”
Wise was not available for the series opener, so Gosser made his debut last Friday.
Van Horn said after the game that Gosser probably couldn’t feel his legs during his first at-bat, but it was expected. His performance behind the plate made the biggest impression, though, as Killian gained comfort in his catcher as the game went on.
Van Horn said Killian was able to pitch as normal because of Gosser.
“When a catcher does a good job, you really don’t notice him,” Van Horn said. “ He didn’t miss any pitches, the balls didn’t get away from him. He did a nice job. I’m really proud of him. I didn’t expect him to hit. He almost got an RBI. … I don’t think I could have asked him to do a better job than he did the first time out.”
Wise was cleared to play in time for Saturday’s game and caught the rest of the weekend. He’ll be behind the plate once again later this week, when the Razorbacks play their final regular season series at Missouri.
It’s not known if Gosser will get back on the field again, but the catcher will be ready if called on. He characterized his Arkansas debut as a “great memory” even though it meant sacrificing his redshirt season with just six regular season games remaining.
But Gosser believes the response from coaches and teammates — the freshman was doused with water Friday — could go a long way as his college career begins.
“At first I was thinking you’re wasting a year,” Gosser said. “But there’s a lot more to it than that. I’ve gotten a lot of respect from the coaches. They respect me. A lot of players, I gained a lot of their respect. So there’s a lot more that went into it then just losing a year. So hopefully that will pull on to next year.”