SEASON PREVIEW: Diamond Hogs aiming for third consecutive College World Series appearance

Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn / Photo:

Opinions vary on exactly where the Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team should be ranked going into the 2020 season with the Hogs ranked as high as No. 3 by Athlon and as low as No. 11 by Baseball America, but the consensus is that Dave Van Horn’s squad is one that will have to be contended with in the ultra-strong SEC as well as nationally.

SEC coaches voted the Razorbacks to win the SEC West in a preseason polling, but to finish behind Vanderbilt and Florida in the overall rankings.

Going into his 18th season with the Razorbacks, Van Horn takes the various polls in stride, but he does like the excitement it creates among fans.

“I love the polls,” Van Horn said Monday following a sold-out appearance at the Downtown Tip-Off Club luncheon at the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. “It’s fun for the fans, but you have to go out and take care of business.”

Arkansas’ National Rankings

Athlon No. 3
USA Today Coaches No. 5
D1 Baseball No. 7 No. 7
Baseball America No. 11

» See 2020 schedule

Van Horn has led the Razorbacks to six College World Series appearances, 16 NCAA Tournaments, one SEC overall championship and five SEC West division titles. He’s won 689 games at Arkansas, second only to the legendary Norm DeBriyn, and he has no qualms saying the Hogs’ goal for the season is to return to the College World Series for a third season in a row.

“It’s really what you work for, to be in that position to compete at the highest level every year, but again, nothing is given to you,” Van Horn said.

The head Hog likes what he sees in his team. The Razorbacks have depth and versatility in the field with a squad he feels has the potential to be one of his best defensive teams. Preseason All-SEC selections Casey Opitz at catcher and Jacob Nesbit at third base spearhead the Razorbacks defense.

Likewise the Razorbacks’ batting lineup is loaded with players who can hit for power and percentage, led by All-American candidates Heston Kjerstad in left field and Casey Martin at shortstop.

Newcomers Justin Moore, a December graduate of Shawnee Mission East (Kan.) High School, will man second base, Cole Austin, a graduate transfer from Arizona State, has nailed down first base, and Braydon Webb, a transfer from Grayson (Texas) Community College, will play left field.

Arkansas’ pitching staff returns Connor Noland, a righty, and Patrick Wicklander, a lefty, as the Hogs’ 2 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday starters respectively in the Razorbacks’ season-opening series against Eastern Illinois at Baum Stadium. Springdale freshman Blake Adams will man the mound at 1 p.m. Sunday. The games will be live streamed on the ESPN Plus app.

Arkansas returns last year’s top hitter in Matt Goodheart, who had a .345 batting average in 2019 / Photo:

Van Horn is also excited about his depth, experience, and talent in the bullpen that will feature several experienced performers like co-captain Kevin Kopps and some talented newcomers.

Bullpen depth hurt the Hogs in the College World Series in 2018 when they were an out away from a national title and in last season’s return to Omaha.

Could a deep and talented bullpen be what pushes the Razorbacks over the top for their first baseball national title?

It’s not a far-fetched proposition, but first things, first.

After a long fall of workouts and practice and a month of scrimmaging since mid-January, Van Horn said the Razorback are eager to get the season started this weekend.

“I think the vibe is we’re just ready to play somebody else,” Van Horn said. “You think of fall baseball practice and inter-squad games, they get tired of hitting off each other. Then when we get back in early January we start scrimmaging again. It’s just time to see what we can do against somebody else in a different uniform. They just can’t wait to play.”

At the moment, Van Horn wants to make sure his Hogs aren’t too high spirited.

“It’s a long season. and it’s just opening weekend,” Van Horn said. “What I told the players is to try and control your emotions and just play the game.

SEC Coaches Poll

SEC East
1. Vanderbilt (9) – 87
2. Florida (3) – 77
3. Georgia (2) – 76
4. Tennessee – 50
5. South Carolina – 48
6. Missouri – 32
7. Kentucky – 22

SEC West
1. Arkansas (5) – 82
2. Mississippi State (4) – 73
T3. Auburn (2) – 67
T3. LSU (3) – 67
5. Texas A&M – 44
6. Ole Miss – 38
7. Alabama – 21
( ) = First place votes

SEC Champion
Vanderbilt (8)
Florida (2)
Arkansas (1)
Auburn (1)
Georgia (1)
Mississippi State (1)

“A lot of the time out of the chutes, you don’t play well because you are too wound up, basically. If we can stay calm, and I think our coaches have tried to talk about this a lot in our player groups, it will go well for them.”

The Razorbacks do not return an ace of the magnitude of Blaine Knight from 2018 or Isaiah Campbell from 2019, who suffered only one Friday night loss in SEC play over two seasons, but Van Horn likes his options.

“We have some experienced options, and we have some really good younger pitchers who are really going to help us a lot,” Van Horn said. “Maybe by the second half of the season, that combination will help us to get to where we need to be.

“Last year at this time, we didn’t know what Campbell was. We are hoping that someone will evolve to be a shut-down guy or a guy that we know can give you six innings every night out. We want those guys to go out and be consistent.”

Noland, who was the Hogs’ second-day starter most of last season is s strike-thrower with good off-speed pitches. Van Horn said his velocity is up after concentrating only on baseball after playing football his freshman season.

“He’s throwing the ball 91, 92 all the time,” Van Horn said. “Last year this time, he was 88 to 91, and then it faded a little. I don’t think he’s going to fade this year. When it warms up, I think he’s only going to get stronger. His secondary stuff is really good.”

Noland’s accuracy leads to a lot of short innings, but because he throws strikes, Van Horn said teams will hit him on occasions.

“That’s when he will count on his teammates in the field and at the plate,” Van Horn said.

Accuracy was an issue for Wicklander, last season’s Day 3 starter, but Van Horn said the sophomore is hitting his mark at a better clip in workouts.

“Wicklander, last year the only problem he had was that he walked too many people,” Van Horn said. “I think his record was 6-2, but I can’t tell you how many games we took him out in the fourth inning with two outs and a lead, but he had just walked two and their best hitter was up and we had to go to a right-hander. He left some wins on the table. If he throws strikes like he’s been doing, he’s going to be one of the best lefties in the country.”

Van Horn said Wicklander is not a worry, but that he and pitching coach Matt Hobbs would like for him to shorten up some of those 3-2 and 2-2 at-bats to keep him in the game a little longer.

“The pattern with Patrick has been more pitches but more strikeouts,” Van Horn said in comparing him to Noland. “He’s developed a better breaking ball, more of a downward action pitch that he has worked on alone and with Coach Hobbs. It’s a better pitch. It’s what you have to have. These guys can hit the fastball at this level, what you’ve got to do is to have something else to get them out, and he’s developing that pitch.”

Adams has shown great promise for a freshman. The Hogs are going to get his feet wet on Sunday to see how he handles the situation.

“We’re going with Adams this week,” Van Horn said. “We just like experience in that bullpen. It’s going to flip around a little bit. The next weekend we have four games, so that’s four starters.”

Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad was named a Preseason First Team All-America honoree by D1 Baseball.

The Razorbacks host a four-game series against Gonzaga Feb. 20-23 that should give their bullpen a good workout early in the season.

“If they aren’t starting, they are in the bullpen, and we’ll finish the games up with those guys right now, Van Horn said.

Martin at shortstop and Nesbit at third base give the Razorbacks the best right side of the infield in the SEC and probably the nation. Van Horn likes what he’s seen from the versatile grad transfer Cole Austen from Arizona State who is set to play first for the Razorbacks.

“Last year Jacob Nesbit might have been the best third baseman in the SEC statistically,” Van Horn said. “With Cole Austen, he played first base at Arizona State, but we worked him at third, too. Those guys can play for us anywhere.”

Van Horn said he likes to cross-train all his infielders every preseason.

“I want all them to get a taste at every position so they know how important it is to make the first throw on a double play, being accurate, and how to turn a double play from both sides of the bag,” Van Horn said. “They need to know how to come get a ball from third. That way there is versatility. If you get into a game and have a guy go down, and you throw a guy in a third base and he’s never played there, then they have an excuse. I want them feel good playing anywhere.”

Second baseman Moore is a player to watch. For a mid-year freshman to step in with a veteran team and nab a starting spot at such a crucial position speaks to the talent he has.

“Obviously, he can turn a double play well,” Van Horn said. “Sometimes we just have to slow him down a little bit in the field. His hands are very quick. He’s just got to have that clock in his head. He doesn’t have to rush, but he has definitely helped us.”

He’s proven to be solid with a bat in his hand since arriving on campus in mid-January.

Arkansas infielder Casey Martin was named named a First Team Preseason All-American by Perfect Game. / Photo:

“He’s like everyone in the lineup,” Van Horn said. “He’s going to strike out every now and then, but in scrimmages he’s hit opposite field home runs, he’s tripled. He’s singled to different parts of the field from both sides of the plate. He’s a confident kid. He can bunt.”

Van Horn was confident in the play he had recruited in Moore, but with him being so young, the veteran coach was a bit concerned about how he would fit in with an established clubhouse. Van Horn asked his players to walk in his shoes and to make an effort to include Moore.

“We’ve got a bunch of good guys,” Van horn said. “I didn’t have to say a lot. Just asked them to talk to him and include him. I think he feels like he is one of the guys. I think the players have done a great job of including him, but I’m sure he’s still learning names, especially with the bullpen guys he doesn’t work with a lot.

“I knew he would hold his own as a player. I just wanted to make sure to keep an eye on him. What’s his demeanor? Is he happy? He says he’s great, and talking to his parents, he said that he feels the decision was the best thing he could have done. The players enjoy him, and they know that he belongs.”

Another player who no doubt belongs is Kjerstad, a consensus pre-season All-American at left field who swings a mighty and now more disciplined bat.

“Heston is just a professional hitter,” Van Horn said. “He’s really learned how to lay off pitches now. That’s just part of development and getting the at-bats. I think playing with Team USA and being a part of that group of highly ranked prospects and knowing he’s at the top of them has really boosted his confidence. He also learned by watching some of those guys and how they go about their business. He’s also worked extremely hard, better than ever. From what I’ve seen in the fall and so far, I don’t know how you could have a better hitter.”

Moving from right filed to center field where Dominic Fletcher played fantastically for the Hogs for three seasons is the speedy sophomore Christian Franklin, whom Van Horn praised for his improved hitting. JUCO transfer Webb, who also projects to be a strong hitter for the Hogs, has settled in at right field.

Catcher Casey Opitz was one of three Razorbacks named to Baseball America’s 2020 Preseason All-America squads / Photo:

That said, the Hogs have a wealth of outfielders to back them up like sophomore Curtis Washington Jr. and Zack Gregory, who came in as an infielder but who is also working in the outfield.

Co-team captain Opitz is a stabilizing force behind the plate. He has improved his hitting since last season and returns as the best defensive catcher in the SEC. His arm strength and accuracy makes it dicey for even the best base-stealers in the league to try and take second.

“Obviously Opitz is the guy,” Van Horn said. “He’s one of the best catchers I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some good ones.”

Van Horn added that Cason Tollett and Dominic Tamez could give Opitz some respite behind the plate, which might allow him to see time in the field.

“Casey could play at first base,” Van Horn said. “We saw him play there in summer league before he came here. He’s such a high-energy guy. He has fun wherever he plays. We’re going to try to get people some rest so you probably will see him there some. He might not start there, but finish a game there. He could play third. He could play anywhere if we needed him too.”

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