Baseball season is finally here. Baseball weather on the other hand, is still a ways away. Mother Nature forced the Diamond Hogs to wait another day before they kick off the 2019 campaign. The Razorbacks and Panthers will begin a doubleheader starting at noon today with a 30 minute break period after the conclusion of the first game. Isaiah Campbell will toe the rubber for Game 1 with Connor Noland following behind him for Game 2. I will be very surprised if Eastern Illinois is able to take one game from the Hogs throughout the series. Should be 3-0 heading into their west coast trip to Hollywood to take on the Trojans of USC. Let’s dive into some areas Arkansas will have to be successful in to make a return trip to Omaha.
Offensively, Coach Dave Van Horn will be working with familiar faces, yet schematically will be very different. 98 baseballs went over the fence thanks to Razorback bats last year, a single season school record. Expect that number to drop. They will have to offset that historical number with speed on the base paths. Last year they did not have to be aggressive on the bases knowing there was a good chance they would score anyway on a home run or a double to the fence. Expect Casey Martin to have at least 20 swipes on the year. Other guys like catcher Casey Optiz and freshman Christian Franklin will be active on the base paths as well. Coach Van Horn announced preseason All-American’s Martin and Heston Kjerstad will bat first and second, respectively. A name you may not be familiar with, Trevor Ezell, will bat third with Dominic Fletcher batting cleanup. Ezell is a grad transfer from SE Missouri State who batted .377 with 11 stolen bases. Ezell will have A LOT of RBI opportunities coming his way with two of the best in front of him in Martin and Kjerstad. Unlike last year, the catcher spot will be manned by two guys, instead of relying on one. Optiz and Zack Plunkett will be used often which will help keep their legs fresh towards the latter part of the season. Sophomore Optiz seems to have the leg up but Plunkett will have plenty of opportunities behind the plate. Jack Kenley will be another speedster on the bases, and will man the second base spot left by fan favorite Carson Shaddy. Martin will make the move from third to shortstop. As an opposing pitcher, I would be terrified to face the top four hitters. Martin, Kjerstad, Ezell, and Fletcher. Doesn’t get much tougher than that.
Defensively, there are a handful of inexperienced arms than one would like to see. Isaiah Campbell finished 2018 5-7 with a 4.3 ERA. As a Friday starter he needs to drop that number into the 3’s if Arkansas wants any taste of success. Campbell had flashes of greatness, most notably against Florida that sent the OmaHogs to the finals of the 2018 College World Series. 5.1 innings of two hit ball, including eight strikeouts against the high powered offense of the Gators. Behind him will be Noland and Jacob Kostyshock. The Sunday starter has struggled in his first two years in a Razorback uniform, posting a 6.52 ERA in 19 and a third innings. The guy who is known for flashing the horns down sign after shutting down the Longhorns back in March last spring is a familiar face Hog fans will feel confident seeing in the 9th inning of close games. Matt Cronin will look to add onto his spectacular sophomore season where he recorded a single season school record of 14 saves. Behind Cronin, expect Kole Ramage, Cody Scroggins, and Patrick Wicklander to take up the bulk of the bullpen duties. Behind Campbell and Cronin, a lot of guys are going to have to prove themselves worthy to be a regular in the rotation. The pitching will be a lot of mixing and matching until the first conference game against the Missouri Tigers on March 15.
Overall, I see a team that will be somewhat like the Razorback basketball team. A little young and inconsistent at times but will have great streaks as well. Out of the 30 conference games, I believe the Hogs will go anywhere from 16-14 to 18-12. A regional host will be tough, but the pieces are there for another spectacular season.
Casey and Heston will lead this young Hog team to another exciting year of baseball in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
See you guys at Baum Stadium.