The 2009 Arkansas baseball season promises to be one of excitement in, and around, the friendly confines of Baum Stadium. A veteran team with a dynamic recruiting class faces one of the toughest schedules in the country this spring, beginning with Washington State on February 20 at 3:05 p.m.
The Razorback schedule includes: 37 home games against four teams that are ranked among the nation’s pre-season top 25, 15 against Southeastern Conference opponents, eight against the Pac 10 and five versus the Big 12.
“This is a great schedule for our fans,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “Nationally, our schedule is second to none. We spent some time on the road last year so that we could give the Razorback fans a great slate of games this season. This is just another confirmation that we have done the right thing for our fans that have been so supportive of us over the years.”
Van Horn’s comments were supported by SEBaseball.com who rated the Hogs schedule as the best in the SEC. SEBaseball paid particular attention to the strength of Arkansas’ mid-week contests which include two-game sets with Kansas, Nebraska and Arizona State to name a few.
The off-season accolades didn’t end with Arkansas’ schedule. Rivals.com pronounced Baum Stadium as the best stadium in the country in October. The Rivals story mentioned the atmosphere at Baum as well as its amenities as main factors for its choice.
A top notch schedule and great facility are instrumental to bringing the fans to the ballpark, but it takes baseball players to produce wins and make a run in the postseason. Fortunately for the Razorbacks, a solid group of returnees was joined by a unanimous top 10 recruiting class, which should keep those in attendance happy throughout the season.
The Razorbacks maintain great potential around the diamond, and the 2009 team could be the deepest in recent memory. Five starters remain from last season’s lineup, which nearly set the school record for home runs in a season. The addition of big bats from the incoming players could make the decade old home run record (as well as several other offensive records) a distant memory.
A position where the Razorbacks were thin last season was catcher, but the addition of a pair of freshmen has the coaching staff thrilled with the possibilities. Senior Ryan Cisterna started 43 games for the Hogs last season and enters the spring as the man to beat. A quicker bat and better plate recognition should help one of the best defensive catchers in the nation flourish in 2009. Cisterna will be pushed by freshman James McCann, who has impressed the Razorback coaches with his handling of the pitching staff and his hitting abilities. If either player should get injured, junior Tom Hauskey could fill the void. A Springdale, Ark., native, Hauskey showed massive improvement at the plate during the fall. Freshman Zac Russell could also factor into the catcher position.
“This is probably the best set of catchers that we’ve had as a whole since I’ve been here,” Van Horn said. “Cisterna is very experienced and did an outstanding job for us last season. We think that he’ll have a big senior year. James (McCann) showed us this fall that if you run he’ll throw you out and Tom (Hauskey) has really improved. Our freshmen are very physical and I feel great about our catching.”
At the corner infield positions, the Razorbacks feel that they have significant pop at the plate. First base will be patrolled by the Andy Wilkins, Jacob House and Andrew Darr trio, while the hot corner will be occupied by Zack Cox, Wilkins and Tim Carver.
Wilkins spent most of his time at first this summer in the Cape Cod League, but returned to third in the fall. Darr played both first and third throughout the summer and improved at both positions. Cox was named Mr. Baseball in the state of Kentucky last year and was a 20th-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers at third base.
“I think that we’ll be as solid as anyone at first base this season,” Van Horn said. “Andy (Wilkins) started there last year when he wasn’t injured and House might be our best defensive player at the position based on the fall. Zack Cox had a tremendous fall and worked really hard on his defense. Carver is a very good defender and could start at third or come in late for defensive purposes.”
The middle infield is perhaps Arkansas’ deepest position, with six players vying for the two spots. Senior co-captain Ben Tschepikow returns to second base and has good chemistry with fellow senior Scott Lyons, who started 27 games at shortstop last season. Carver has shown vast improvement over the last year and could make a run for the starting shortstop position, giving Arkansas healthy competition to one of the most demanding positions on the field. Newcomer Bo Bigham should give Van Horn options if he decides to shake up the lineup.
“We’ll have three players up the middle most of the time,” Van Horn said. “Ben (Tschepikow) is back for his senior year and leads by example. I think that Lyons and Carver will see time at shortstop. I believe that we have some solid players with experience here which helps us tremendously. Bo Bigham is a guy that was known for his bat in high school but really focused on his defense this fall and realized how important that is at this level.”
The Razorbacks return two-thirds of their starting outfield from last season and should have vast depth at the position as nine players could see time. Senior co-captain Chase Leavitt earned the right field position after improving his defensive capabilities and proving he was a strong leadoff hitter. Sophomore Brett Eibner returns to center field as a player to watch, and SEBaseball has already tabbed the Texas native as a key to the Razorbacks’ success. Improved pitch recognition should have the former fourth-round draft pick ready to make an impact.
Left field could be an open position until one of the Razorback outfielders step up. Players like House, Darr and Travis Sample go into spring with an early edge based on the fall. House and Darr each saw time in left last season, while Sample joins the Razorback program from Howard Junior College with a big stick. Freshmen Seth Gardner, Collin Kuhn and Jarrod McKinney may also play a role for the Hogs in the outfield as backups or in left.
“We are very fortunate in the outfield,” Van Horn said. “In right we have Chase Leavitt who was our top hitter last season. He led us in batting average and on-base percentage. Brett Eibner started almost every game in center and has experience. House worked on his defense and I see him playing a lot along with Sample. I feel good about the position and feel that five or six guys can contribute both offensively and defensively.”
Last season the Razorbacks used more than 20 lineups, but feel that number could go way down in 2009. The table setters are in place with Leavitt and Tschepikow hitting 1-2, a place they are familiar with, having done so 21 times during the 2008 season. Leavitt’s keen eye at the plate and speed allowed him to produce a .518 on-base percentage last season, and Tschepikow’s handling of the bat makes him a threat to move a runner every time he approaches the plate.
The middle of the Arkansas lineup will boast the likes of Wilkins, Eibner, Cisterna and House as well as newcomers Cox and Sample, which will improve production significantly from last season. Arkansas’ returnees in the middle of the order accounted for 31 doubles, 30 home runs and 129 RBI last season, their first in Arkansas uniforms. Eibner was the first true freshman to lead the Razorbacks in RBI since Jeff King in 1984.The Pitching Staff
There are some questions that surround the Razorback pitching staff this season, but as a whole, the group should be much improved from last year. The addition of seven new arms from the high school and junior college ranks should give the Razorbacks the bullpen that they so desired last season. Several of those arms could quickly become weekend starters and displace the left-right tandem of Dallas Keuchel and Justin Wells, who return from the 2008 team.
“We have considerably more depth this season than we had last,” Van Horn said. “We now have options that we didn’t have last season when we only had four or five dependable arms on staff.”
Keuchel took his 2008 campaign, where he made 11 starts and posted a 4-3 record, into the Cape Cod League, where he flourished into an All-Star for the Wareham Gatemen. Keuchel is the Razorbacks most experienced starting pitcher and could be the Friday-night starter when Southeastern Conference play rolls around.
Wells’ value to the Razorbacks could take many forms this season. The Arkansas coaches know that he can be an effective starting pitcher but his rubber arm could make him a valuable asset in the bullpen as either a long reliever or everyday closer.
If the Razorbacks move Wells to the bullpen then they will have to find a pair of starters from returnees Mike Bolsinger and James Mahler, or junior college transfers, Bryan Bingham, T.J. Forrest and Jeremy Heatley. Bolsinger spent his 2008 season in the bullpen, but started for the McKinney Marshals of the Texas Collegiate League this summer and was named Pitcher of the Year. Mahler, like Wells, could be an asset, either as a starter or in the bullpen. Arkansas will also take a look at redshirt freshman Drew Smyly in a starters role but plan to take things slowly with the lefty as he recovers from early spring surgery.
In the bullpen, Arkansas does not return many arms, but Stephen Richards is a left-handed ace that has proved his worth. Richards was Arkansas’ best arm in the bullpen last season and was effective against both right- and left-handed batters. He struck out 36 batters in 26-plus innings in 17 appearances.
The remainder of the Arkansas pitching staff is made up of a steady dose of lefties. Trevor Cousineau, Geoffrey Davenport, Zack Hall, Christian Kowalchuk and Scott Limbocker are all southpaws with the ability to start or come in for relief. Sam Murphy rounds out the staff, and was a reliable mid-week starter for the Razorbacks last season.