Former Eastern Kentucky catcher A.J. Lewis signed with Arkansas last month with the idea of replacing junior Casey Opitz who appeared to be moving to the next level. But when Optiz failed to be selected the shortened 2020 MLB draft and could not come to money terms on a free agent contract he announced he would return for a second junior season allowed by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 shutdown. That decision was widely viewed as good news for Arkansas but it placed in doubt Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn’s plans for a strong starter behind the plate with a solid backup at that position.
Van Horn had sold Lewis and former San Francisco University catcher Robert Emery, both grad transfers, on the idea of coming to Arkansas with one winning the starting job and the other filling in at catcher while playing another position on the field. Both are strong at the plate. Lewis batted .451 in the shortened 2020 season with three home runs, 21 RBI and 15 runs scored. Emery hit .381 with 4 doubles and 9 RBI. He also had a two-home run game against California.
Lewis and Emery were friends and on board with Van Horn’s plan. But Opitz’ decision brought about a revelation from Van Horn that he had told both players they could opt out of their letter of intent if Opitz returned. Van Horn also acknowledged that while he could possibly lose both Lewis and Emery he hoped to convince at least one of them to remain with Arkansas. “We need more than one catcher, Van Horn stressed. “We’ve got another plan if they decide to leave.”
Van Horn won’t need to go to his backup plan. This past week Lewis confirmed to the Pig Trail Nation that he will play for the Razorbacks in 2021 and will be on campus when the players return next month.
“It caught us all by surprise,” Lewis said of Opitz’s decision, “but once I talked with coach Van Horn and the rest of the staff, they wanted me to stay and said there would be a spot for me and it was a great opportunity for me. I don’t think it changes my situation anyway. I was coming in as player on the diamond and also help with catching.”
Those familiar with Lewis say he can play multiple positions and if he can hit the way he did this past season Van Horn will almost certainly find a starting spot for him.
“I think it’s a win-win situation,” Lewis acknowledged. “It’s hard to catch every day anyway. I’ll be able to help Opitz. He’s a great guy. I’ve seen what he can do. I can’t wait to start working with him. I think you’ll see it will help his hitting if he doesn’t have to catch every day.”
Emery appears to be headed elsewhere. Lewis admitted that he was looking forward to being on the same team with his good friend but believes that Emery will end up in the best situation for him.
“Rob and I pretty much talk every day on this,’ Lewis revealed. “It’s a tough situation for both of us but it is what it is. We’re both kind of used to it throughout out whole careers. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s got options. There are a lot of teams in this country that would love to get that kid.”
Lewis confirmed that he plans to be on campus July 6, the first day baseball players are allowed to report telling us, “I think it’s important to get familiar with the surroundings and figure out where I’m staying. It’s a big move so I want to make it as smooth as possible. Get to know the guys and the coaches. Check out the clubhouse and other facilities.”
“I can’t wait,” Lewis continued. “With all this craziness going on right now it’s going be great to get down there, escape a little bit and just focus on baseball. Work on my game. It’s gonna be a breath of fresh air.”
Lewis is currently staying with friends in Chicago but several current Razorbacks have reached out to him including Christian Franklin, Cullen Smith and Matt Goodheart.
“I can definitely tell it’s a great group of guys,” Lewis stressed. “They are all about giving back. Being open with everyone. Listening. There doesn’t seem to be any bad blood.”