BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
As fas as college baseball openers, Razorback head coach Dave Van Horn isn’t sure it can get any better than what awaits this team on Friday night at the College Baseball Showdown.
That’s when No. 6 Arkansas will open its 2023 campaign by battling former Southwest Conference and future Southeastern Conference foe Texas in a 7 p.m. contest at Globe Life Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Razorbacks, ranked in the top 10 of all six college baseball polls and Longhorns – whose lone ranking is 24th in Perfect Game’s poll – are two of the eight teams that made the College World Series last season in Omaha, Neb.
“I think it is something that our fans will turn out for, that Texas fans will turn out for,” Van Horn said. “…I think college baseball is so popular right now. It’s at an all-time high I would say in popularity. I don’t know how many (fans) will be there, but they will be loud and proud, the colors will be flying and it will be fun.”
Arkansas, the only college baseball team to win 45 games or more in each of the last five full seasons, will also play No. 15 TCU Saturday at 7 p.m. and No. 9 Oklahoma State Sunday at 2:30 and the Rangers’ indoor stadium with a retractable roof.
All games will be streamed on FloSports.
“…Win or lose, playing in that ballpark, there is not a better ballpark in the country, Van Horn said. “We are excited to get down there.”
Texas head coach David Pierce feels the same way.
“It’s going to be electric,” Pierce said. “I really believe that the fan base is so ready for college baseball and being an indoor event, you know they’re going to show up. You’ve got two really good teams that have great history, so it’s going to attract a lot of people — not just people from Fayetteville and Austin, but just college baseball fans.
“I think the entire tournament is going to present that. It i going be an electric weekend.”
The Hogs-Horns clash will be the nightcap of a Friday tripleheader at the home of the Texas Rangers that has Missouri facing Oklahoma State at 11 a.m. and Vanderbilt battling TCU at 3 p.m.
The starting pitching match up is expected to feature a pair of lefties in Arkansas sophomore Hagen Smith (7-2, 4.66) and Texas junior Lucas Gordon (7-2, 3.05).
Gordon was a second-team All-Big 12 selection last season and for last season and landed him on this year’s preseason Big 12 first team.
“He’s their most experienced pitcher and (threw) a lot of innings last year,” Van Horn said. “That’s a tough league and if you’re coaches preseason pick — I guess that’s who voted, you’re pretty good.”
Arkansas’ batting lineup is likely to find Kansas transfer Tavian Josenbeger leading off and followed by Peyton Stovall, Caleb Cali, Brady Slavens, Jared Wegner and Jace Bohrofen with Hudson Polk, John Bolton and Kendall Diggs in some order 7-9.
Cali hit over .400 in fall scrimmages showing power with a bevy of homers and doubles and has stayed on that tear in 2023 scrimmages.
“We thought he was gonna be a good bat,” hitting coach Nate Thompson said. “That’s why we offered him. But I feel like he has shown that he’s really ready quicker than maybe some other guys from the JUCO level do sometimes.”
Van Horn saw a opening at third base that he thought Cali could feel for Cayden Wallace, who was taken by the Kansa City Royals in the second round of the 2022 MLB Draft.
“We had a need for him to play third (and) that’s what he wanted to play coming in here,” Van Horn said. “Whether he could do it or not, he had to go prove it to us, and I think he’s shown that he’s pretty good over there. He’s had days when it didn’t go good, but a lot of guys do. But I feel like that he works at it. He cares about being a good defender.
Van Horn feels like his team has a lot of versatility and plans to fully use his roster although some newcomers may not see action this weekend.
“The human side of you wants to…take care of guys that have worked hard and I feel bad about it, but at the same time, we have a lot of games and their time’s coming,” Van Horn said. “That’s what I tell them — just be the best teammate you can.
“If you don’t play opening weekend or you play a little bit, you just show what you can do when you get in there, do your job and you’re going to get more opportunity.”
Photo by John D. James