FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is coming off back-to-back trips to the College World Series and it doesn’t appear Dave Van Horn and his staff are slowing down anytime soon.
The Razorbacks are among the favorites to get back to Omaha, Neb., again this year. The season opens on Friday, Feb. 14, when Eastern Illinois comes to Baum-Walker Stadium for a three-game series. The first pitch for the season opener is 3 p.m..
One player who has burst onto the scene is true freshman infielder Robert Moore who came in at midterm. Moore is from Shawnee Mission (Kan.) East and hasn’t disappointed.
“Pretty much what I thought,” Van Horn said. “Very steady defender. Obviously he’s very young but he knows the game, grew up with the game. I think he’s feeling his away along a little bit as far as trying to get to know people. He doesn’t know some of our pitchers’ names and maybe some of our outfielders’ names. He’s hanging out with the infielders. As far as the baseball part of it that’s probably where he’s most comfortable right now. He looks like he belongs. I think he’s done a good job. I think the players kind of get it now that they’ve seen him play that he can definitely help us.”
With Casey Martin back at shortstop and Moore apparently targeted for second base what does remainder of infield look like?
“Well it probably puts (Jacob) Nesbit back at third, which if you look at is stats last year is incredible,” Van Horn said. “The kid made four errors at third base all year which is unheard of. He made some great plays. You think about the last play he made here against Ole Miss. Obviously the game was in hand but that was an incredible play.
“It takes Cole Austin probably over to first and he’s had a a lot of experience at first. He played there at Arizona State and he played one fall there like every day. He’s looked great over there. The problem is (Matt) Goodheart’s shoulder is not near ready to throw. His defense has been fine fielding the ball. But he will be our DH starting out until that shoulder gets better. And we can go from there.”
It appears that Heston Kjerstad will be back in right field, but Van Horn said that wasn’t necessarily set.
“Yes, but Heston could play first base, too,” Van Horn said. “As of right now he could be our guy that we put over there because we’re got some good outfielders. There are a couple that are trying to get into that lineup and if we had an injury or somebody was slumping a little bit we could definitely put him in at first base and he’d be fine. He’s still taking reps over there but he’s our starting right fielder.”
In addition to Hjerstad, Van Horn feels good about the options he has in the outfield.
“It’s pretty good,” Van Horn said of outfield depth. “You know, we’ve got obviously Kjerstad, (Christian) Franklin and then (Braydon) Webb, who you really didn’t get to see, will be our left fielder. He’s good to go. He may hit leadoff, he may hit in the middle of the order, same with Franklin. Franklin’s really been swinging the bat well. Zack Gregory, we brought him in here to be an infielder, he’s doing both. He’s been a really tough out from the left side. He had a really good summer and got a lot stronger. Curtis Washington, he’s really improved. He’s gotten better and better.
“I think I’m leaving somebody out of there, but it’s just, if somebody needs to have a day off, or is struggling or has a little issue, I don’t feel like we’ll lose a whole lot. Obviously, if Kjerstad goes down, that’s a guy with a ton of experience and a lot of power. As far as the other guys, we can kind of plug a guy in and he’s going to be fine.”
Casey Opitz returns at catcher. Van Horn talked about him and the ones behind him.
“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. (Dominic) Tamez and (Cason) Tollett will battle it out a little bit there and also we’re also working Cason out at first. He’s got some power, and he’s a big kid. When we recruited him he was a lot smaller. And he had a little bit of an arm injury, and I think it threw him back a little bit. Tamez is a pretty steady guy. We’ve seen what we thought we were going to get. I think it’s been a good battle. Both of them have a good enough bat to get in the lineup right now a little bit. In our first three weekends of scrimmages, they’ll catch a little bit. Tamez may DH a little bit or play in the outfield. Tollett will catch and play some first.”
Van Horn feels good about the starting pitchers as well particularly the first two starters.
“I would say probably (Connor) Noland would throw game 1 right now and (Patrick) Wicklander game 2,” Van Horn said. “They’ve both looked really good so far and done really well. I don’t think – I mean obviously they both want to pitch first. To me they all count the same. So it could flip around but I’d say as of right now that’s probably what you’ll see right out of the gates.
“You look at Eastern Illinois has a big-time arm. I mean he’s 95-96-97. He held us down last year. Now he’s a junior. He’s a guy who’s going to be a really good draft pick. It’s going to be a really good challenge that first ball game.”
How about beyond Noland and Wicklander in the rotation?
“I brought my list, so I’m going to look down a little bit, because I don’t want to miss anybody,” Van Horn said. “When you look at it, (Kevin) Kopps could be a starter. (Caleb) Bolden, if we could him back. I think his bullpen the up day velocity-wise was 89, 90, and there’s more in there — a lot more — because a month ago he was 85, 86. It just keeps climbing. He’s throwing nothing but strikes with a really good changeup. His arm action this year is a lot shorter than it was before the surgery. I think it’s really helped him with command.
“You could also look at a couple of freshmen. Blake Adams he’s been really good. So we’re excited about him. Kole Ramage, we could start him if we wanted. There are a couple other guys in there … Caden Monke, really good. We’re not hitting him very well. His thing as a freshman was he didn’t throw many strikes. Now he’s throwing strikes. The batting average against, we don’t hit him. There’s five or six guys right there. And if they’re not starting, they’re going to be middle relief. And if we need to close it with one of those guys, we will.”
Van Horn said the closer job is still open between several options.
“You could probably take one or two of those guys,” Van Horn said. “I think (Zebulon) Vermillion if he’s healthy he’ll have a shot to help us there. He wants to pitch more innings, but he has to stay healthy. What I mean by that is he doesn’t want to just throw to one hitter here and an inning there. But if he’s the guy, then coming in the eighth and getting six outs or the ninth or whatever.
“I might go with Peyton Pallette, who’s a straight-up freshman, too. Because his curveball is as good as anybody’s, and he throws his fastball anywhere from 93 to 95, and there’s nobody in the stands. When it warms up and the place is jumping and his adrenaline’s going, there’s going to be more.I think Adams could be a guy, too. He’s pumping the ball at 93, 95 every pitch inside.
“That’s just the young guys. Then you take some of the other guys with some experience. Jacob Burton is now throwing just about everything he has over the plate. He’s the one that’s been up there to 98 miles an hour for us. His issue is he’s just got to get that secondary pitch going a little bit, because these hitters, as you know, after a while they don’t really care how hard you throw. You’ve got to have something to fool them and trick them a little bit. Then it comes down to location.”
Arkansas and Eastern Illinois will begin at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 15, and then at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 16.