Generally the best way to tell if it’s time for Razorbacks baseball is to look at a thermometer. If it’s freezing in Fayetteville, there’s a good chance Dave Van Horn’s Arkansas squad is prepping for the season.
That’s not been the case this year. The northwest Arkansas winter has been so moderate that the No. 22 Hogs have gotten plenty of outdoor work in preparation for their season-opening series against Central Michigan.
Arkansas plays host to the Chippewas at 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday, launching Van Horn’s 14th season as the Razorbacks’ skipper.
“Their coach called me to set up this series a couple of years ago,” Van Horn said. “I told him that he must have some guys. When a coach calls wanting to play an early series, you know he likes his talent. They are picked to win their division in the MAC and have a veteran ballclub.”
With all due respect to the Chippewas, Van Horn is more concerned with how his team is developing than with their opening opponent. Making an NCAA Regional has become routine for the Razorbacks, who have played in the postseason tournament every year under Van Horn. The goal this year is to return to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series for a fifth time during Van Horn’s tenure.
After a 15-15 start last season, the Razorbacks pulled it together and won 20 of their final 29 games to earn a Regional bid. They rode that momentum all the way to Omaha.
Van Horn hopes the Hogs reach the same destination, but he’d like them to take a more direct route this season. Consistency will be the key, something the Razorbacks have lacked in preseason practices.
“I think the kids are excited, maybe more so than the coaches,” Van Horn said. “We never think we’re ready this early. With baseball you play so many games that sometimes you just play your way into roles whether it’s as a starter or working out of the bullpen or with the the batting lineup.
“The biggest issue for me right now is the consistency of our position players and then determining the roles of the pitchers.”
Van Horn said returning to Omaha isn’t something that he talks a lot about with his Hogs, but the goal is understood.
“The way it works around here, just the culture, we plan on challenging to go to Omaha by the end of the season,” Van Horn said. “We feel like we have just as good a chance as anyone to make it there no matter what our record is, who we play or where the (NCAA) sends us. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about it.
“We have a sign at the end of the tunnel going out to the field that speaks of earning it every day and the last word on it is Omaha.”
Van Horn said talking about the College World Series more would just add pressure.
“The lingo from the coaches is that we just need to get better every week,” Van Horn said.
The Razorbacks are without last year’s star Andrew Benintendi, the winner of the Golden Spikes Award and SEC Player of the Year honors. Benintendi was a first-round pick by the Boston Red Sox. The Hogs also lost cleanup batter Tyler Spoon, who is also in the Red Sox organization.
“There’s been a lot said about Andrew, and obviously he deserves it, but Tyler Spoon batted right behind him and did a great job,” Van Horn said. “Losing the three- and four-hole hitters and a lot of production, that’s scary for our coaches.”
Van Horn’s not looking for any one player to attempt to pick up the slack.
“Rarely are you able to replace a player statistically like Andrew,” Van Horn said. “In the MLB, you trade for someone close, but in college it’s about recruiting and developing players. We’ve got to have a collective effort. It’s about four or five guys all having better years to make up for the loss of guys like Andrew and Tyler.”
The Razorbacks have senior experience in the middle of the infield with returning shortstop Michael Bernal and second baseman Rick Nomura.
“Mike and Rick are probably the coaches’ biggest comfort area,” Van Horn said. “Those two guys know what’s up. They aren’t intimidated or scared. They are probably the best double-play combination in the league.”
Carson Shaddy, a sophomore from Fayetteville, and Cody Scroggins, a freshman from Bentonville, will share the third-base spot. Shaddy gets the nod based on his hitting. Scroggins will also be the backup at shortstop and second base.
“Carson Shaddy is playing there now, but he is coming off Tommy John surgery,” Van Horn said. “He’s fielding the ball well, but the arm strength is coming. He’s hitting the ball really well. Offensively, I’d like to play him there. Carson’s had a very strong arm, but coming of the surgery, it’s an average arm that’s getting better. It frustrates him a little bit. We may start Carson and then put Cody in to finish it up. We’ve talked to Cody about his role, but he will get some starts.”
Senior Cullen Gassaway is holding down first base. He doesn’t have the best range, Van Horn said, but he fields everything he gets to.
“He can dig it out of the dirt.” Van Horn said. “He’s solid, but he has to be a run producer for us to play. We could hit him fourth or eighth. We have to balance out that lineup, but he needs to drive in some runs. That’s his job.”
Keaton McKinney (6-2, 3.21 ERA) and Dominic Taccolini (6-4, 4.32) are coming off surgeries after last season, but give the Hogs experience on the mound. They, along with freshman Blain Knight, begin the season as the Hogs’ weekend starters.
“The way we look at it, we have some good bullpen guys,” Van Horn said. “We don’t see a starter going more than three to five innings, maybe six depending on pitch count, and then turning it over to the bullpen.”
Zach Jackson, Cannon Chadwick and James Teague are prime right-handed options out of the bullpen, while Weston Rogers, Ty Harris and Kacey Murphy have been Arkansas’ top lefties in preseason practice.
Jackson, named to the Stopper of the Year Watch List recently, could have been a starter, but Van Horn thinks he can help the team more closing out games.
“We want to have a veteran guy we can put out there to get us some wins early, while we try to figure this out,” Van Horn said. “Last year we blew a lot of games early because we didn’t know who to go to. We’re going to go to Zach. If we don’t use him on Friday or Saturday or maybe just for an inning, I have no problem starting him on Sunday.”
Senior Tucker Pennell will be the starting catcher, with freshman Grant Koch backing him up.
“Tucker has been through it a little bit and is a big help,” Van Horn said. “He’s our best fielding catcher and can really move around and smother the ball. He’s improved offensively. He’s calmer and has been there before. Grant Koch is our best offensive catcher. He can hit it. If we need more punch offensively, he’s someone we could go to.”
It will be an all new outfield for the Hogs with freshman Eric Cole starting in right field, Clark Eagan in center field and sophomore Luke Bonfield in left field. But Van Horn said there will be ongoing competition, and all must perform offensively and defensively to hold down their sports.
“In the outfield, we have six guys who are trying to make it out there,” Van Horn said. “We could platoon, but I would like to know each day what to write into that lineup and not have to worry about it. I hope to have it settled by our first SEC series at South Carolina.”
Van Horn wants more balance up and down his batting lineup, and he’s willing to be a little unorthodox to do it.
“We may move some guys down in the order to spots where they may not be glad to hit, but it will be better overall for our game,” Van Horn said.
Either Cole or Shaddy will start the season as leadoff hitter. The one that doesn’t lead off will bat second.
“Cole led us in hitting in fall ball, and has continued to hit,” Van Horn said. “He can run, has a good eye and can bunt a little bit, but I may start him off in the two hole, and put Carson Shaddy out to lead off. But we could flip flop them. I’m not sure it matters a lot. Neither are great base stealers, but both can hit it.”
Van Horn explained he wants his leadoff man to be a pest to pitchers, fouling off pitches and going deep into the count. He said both Cole and Shaddy can make a pitcher pay for a mistake with a double, and they have the speed to score from second off a single every time.
Eagan will bat third, but the four hole has been more problematic.
“Clean-up, I don’t know,” Van Horn said. “It’s not very consistent. We could go lefty or righty. We have some guys that tear it up in batting practice, but that’s BP. You’ve got to be able to take it to the game and drive in runs.”
Bonifield and fellow sophomore outfield Chad Spanberger could fill the bill as the cleanup hitter, but neither has stepped up to nail down the job.
“Bonifield is a hitter,” Van Horn said. “He’s got to hit. He’s improved as an outfielder, but he’s not going to steal a base or do anything spectacular on defense. He can hit some home runs and doubles. That’s what we need from him.”
Van Horn said Bonifield has struggled of late in practice games batting in the middle of the lineup.
“Maybe we move him down and take some pressure off of him, send a message, whatever, but we need him to swing it,” Van Horn said.
Perhaps the most powerful Hog at the plate is Spanberger. Van Horn said the young man is fun to watch in batting practice.
“You know the wind here blows in from right field pretty good, but it doesn’t matter for him,” Van Horn said. “He’ll cut right through it. It goes over the fence, and when there is no wind, he’ll hit it over the scoreboard, and that’s a pretty good poke.
“He doesn’t even have to hit the ball all the way if he gets his hands out. Not if he’s jammed, but he can hit it off the middle or the end of the bat, he drives it out of the park.”
However Spanberger is too picky for the perfect pitch, said Van Horn, who would like to pencil the 6-3, 235-pounder into the middle of the lineup.
“He’s got to swing the bat more,” Van Horn said. “You’re not always going to get the perfect pitch.”
Nomura could hit in the fifth or six hole, while Bernal could figure into several spots.
“Ideally, I’d like to bat Normura second, but he gets too much air under the ball for me,” Van Horn said. “So we’ll move him down and have him get some sac-flies.
“Bernal is better offensively. He’s hit three or four home runs, and is much stronger. He’s getting that man strength that we hope they get when they are 19, but always seems to come out when they get in professional ball.”
2016 Arkansas Baseball Schedule
Date | Opponent | Time
Feb. 19 – Central Michigan – 3 p.m.
Feb. 20 – Central Michigan – 2 p.m.
Feb. 21 – Central Michigan – 12 p.m.
Feb. 23 – Miss. Valley St. – 3 p.m.
Feb. 24 – Miss. Valley St. – 3 p.m.
Feb. 26 – Rice at Houston – 7 p.m.
Feb. 27 – Houston at Houston – 3:30 p.m.
Feb. 28 – Texas Tech at Houston – 11 a.m.
March 4 – Eastern Illinois – 3 p.m.
March 5 – Eastern Illinois – 12 p.m.
March 6 – Eastern Illinois – 1 p.m.
March 8 – Gonzaga – 3 p.m.
March 9 – Gonzaga – 3 p.m.
March 11 – Western Illinois – 3 p.m.
March 12 – Western Illinois – 2 p.m.
March 13 – Western Illinois – 1 p.m.
March 15 – Grambling State – 6:30 p.m.
March 16 – Grambling State – 3 p.m.
March 18 – at South Carolina – 6:30 p.m.
March 19 – at South Carolina – 3 p.m.
March 20 – at South Carolina – 12:30 p.m.
March 25 – Auburn – 6:30 p.m.
March 26 – Auburn – 6 p.m.
March 27 – Auburn – 1 p.m.
March 29 – at Oklahoma State – 6 p.m.
April 1 – Missouri – 6:30 p.m.
April 2 – Missouri – 7:30 p.m.
April 3 – Missouri – 12:30 p.m.
April 6 – at Memphis – 6:30 p.m.
April 8 – at Ole Miss – 6:30 p.m.
April 9 – at Ole Miss – 7 p.m.
April 10 – at Ole Miss – noon
April 12 – La-Monroe at NLR – 6:30 p.m.
April 14 – Florida – 8 p.m.
April 15 – Florida – 6:30 p.m.
April 16 – Florida – 2 p.m.
April 19 -Creighton – 6 p.m.
April 21 – at Kentucky – 6 p.m.
April 22 – at Kentucky – 6:30 p.m.
April 23 – at Kentucky – noon
April 26 – Oklahoma St. – 6:30 p.m.
April 29 – Texas A&M – 6:30 p.m.
April 30 – Texas A&M – 2 p.m
May 1 -Texas A&M – 1 p.m.
May 3 – at Missouri St. – 6:30 p.m.
May 6 – at LSU – 7 p.m.
May 7 – at LSU – 6:30 p.m.
May 8 – at LSU – 1 p.m.
May 13 – Alabama – 6:30 p.m.
May 14 – Alabama – 6 p.m.
May 15 – Alabama – 1 p.m.
May 17 – Missouri St. – 6:30 p.m.
May 19 – at Miss. St. – 6:30 p.m.
May 20 – at Miss. St. – 6:30 p.m.
May 21 – at Miss. St. – 5 p.m.
March 24-29 – SEC Tournament at Hoover, Ala.