After injuries and just plain bad luck derailed a return trip to the College World Series last season, the 2006 Arkansas baseball team is poised to make another run on Omaha, Nebraska.
That run begins with the start of fall practice as a 41-man roster reports to Baum Stadium for the first of 24 fall practices that will continue though the middle of October. The practice slate will finish with the 2005 Fall World Series that will be played in a best two-out-of-three format. That roster includes 18 newcomers that will be needed to fill positions in the infield, a slot in the rotation and help to fortify the Razorbacks’ bullpen.
“We are really just looking to shore up a few things in fall practice,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “We need to find out who is going to make up our infield in certain spots, and who is going to help out in the bullpen. There are still some unanswered questions.
“We are starting fall practice a little earlier this season. We have a lot of young players, and I want to get them out on the field and evaluate them a little bit. I want to see what they look like as baseball players, not just what I am told about them athletically from workouts in the weight room and conditioning drills. We really want to get some skill instruction done and get out there and see these guys play.”
The fall practice schedule and a new weight-training routine should help the Razorbacks get to the start of the 2006 season in their best shape yet.
Combine all of that with a returning group of players that saw plenty of playing time due to injuries last season and the Hogs could be one of the elite teams in country in 2006. Many of Van Horn’s everyday starters were sidelined in 2005 with injuries, and that allowed him to insert seldom utilized freshmen and bench players that were able to earn valuable experience.
As the season progressed, those newcomers become regulars in the Hogs’ lineup and developed into outstanding college baseball players that should help anchor this year’s squad.
“We got a lot of young guys coming back that gained invaluable experience as freshman due to injuries and other issues we had,” Van Horn said. “They got to play a lot more than was originally planned by the coaching staff at the beginning of last spring. That is going to be a positive this season because they have already gained that in-game experience in the SEC and playing on the road in hostile environments.”
Picked by many as one of the preseason favorites in the SEC Western Division, the Razorbacks return almost completely intact after saying goodbye to just two starters from last year’s team. Only shortstop Scott Hode and third baseman Clay Goodwin depart after long and productive careers, which gives Coach Van Horn with his deepest and most talented squad in his four years in Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks return a wealth of talent at off of a team that went 39-22 in 2004 and advanced to the championship game of the NCAA Austin Regional before bowing out to eventual National Champions Texas.
The Hogs will be one of the fastest and most aggressive teams in the nation. Van Horn’s offensive style is all about getting on base and making things happen. Arkansas has swiped over 100 bases in each of the past two seasons and will look to make a run at the school record of 155 in 2006.
Throw in the powerful bats of Danny Hamblin, Jake Dugger, Brian Walker and Blake Parker, along with several talented newcomers and the Hogs just might have the recipe for one of the more feared offensive teams in the nation.
“You look for the production and leadership at the plate from some of our more experienced guys,” Van Horn said. Guys like Danny Hamblin and Jake Dugger have started for a couple of years now, and they need to have big years.”
The pitching staff is anchored by veteran RHP Charley Boyce, whose iron-man performance down the stretch last season and into the postseason carried his team into the NCAA Tournament.
“On the mound, you have a guy like Charley Boyce who is going to be in his fifth year in the program, and his fourth battling in the SEC,” Van Horn said. “That is going to be a plus for this pitching staff and team. Then you have a guy like Nick Schmidt who gained so much valuable experience last season and really became a dominant pitcher.”
In all Arkansas returns 20 lettermen, including three starting pitchers and six starting position players. Those veterans are joined by one of the most talented recruiting classes in school history.
The Hogs also added to one of the best coaching staffs in the country when they lured Alabama hitting Coach Todd Butler to Fayetteville in early July. Butler joins pitching coach Dave Jorn on the staff along with new volunteer assistant coach Bubbs Merrill.
When you start talking about offense for Arkansas the conversation has to start with junior first baseman Danny Hamblin who will anchor first base and the heart of the Hogs lineup in 2006. He established himself as one of the more dangerous hitters in the SEC a year ago when he led the team with a .341 batting average, 19 doubles, 10 home runs and 49 RBI.
Both middle infield positions and third base will be areas for the Hogs to solidify early on for both a solid offensive and defensive ball club. The Razorbacks return two talented infielders in senior John Henry Marquardt and sophomore Ben Tschepikow, who should occupy two of those starting jobs. A talented group of newcomers like Memphis’ Logan Forsythe, Beaumont, Texas, native James Ewing and Tulsa’s Kevin Carby will get an opportunity to make an immediate impact for Arkansas.
Catcher was one of the biggest questions entering last season but Arkansas found the answer in redshirt freshman Brian Walker. His defense and strong throwing arm kept him in the lineup early in the year as he struggled at the plate. He found his stroke in the second half of the season and enters his sophomore campaign as one of the Razorbacks’ team leaders.
Craig Gentry took over in center field midway through last year and quickly exploded onto the scene. The lightening-fast senior can track down almost anything in the outfield and will be gunning for the school single-season stolen base record at the top of the lineup. Gentry did have off-season Tommy John surgery, and the Hogs are hoping he will be in the lineup on opening day.
Jake Dugger and Blake Parker spent their summers in the Cape Cod League refining their tools for a breakout 2006 season. Dugger can play either corner outfield position and possesses power to both fields and a knack for coming through in the clutch. Parker is a five-tool player with the ability to play a number of positions. He has excellent power to all fields and the ability to be a star when everything falls into place.
Clint Arnold is also coming off of an excellent summer where he was named to the Texas Collegiate League All-Star game. The sophomore will make the move to the outfield on a full-time basis in 2006. Stephen Robison is another Razorback that had a great summer. The speedy junior seemed to finally put it all together being named to the TCL All-Star game.
THE PITCHING STAFF
Charley Boyce enters his senior campaign with his name already littered throughout the Arkansas record books. His 122.1 innings pitched last season was the second most in school history. His bulldog presence on the mound and uncanny ability to get the toughest of hitters out with an 86 mph fastball gives Arkansas a strong leader on the mound.
Boyce leads a staff that features one of the best left-handed pitchers in the country. Sophomore Nick Schmidt is coming off one of the best freshman seasons in Razorback history in 2005 with an 8-2 record and a 2.80 ERA. His 6-5 frame and explosive 95 mph fastball fits in well at the top of the Hogs’ rotation.
With your top two starters penciled in, one of the most important things for the coaching staff to identify is the Sunday starting pitcher. The first name that comes to mind is sophomore right-hander Shaun Seibert. Seibert struggled with his consistency a year ago, but has the stuff to solidify the No. 3 spot in the rotation.
There are several other pitchers that will vie for a spot in the starting rotation or fill the role of a middle reliever for the Hogs. Right-handed flame-thrower Josh Smith joins left-handers Devin Collis and James Gilbert in that group of pitchers that will play an important role in the success of the Hogs this season.
Smith, Collis and Gilbert all got a taste of the starting rotation in 2005 and could help in that role again, but first must sure up a bullpen that was the undoing of the Razorbacks last season. Arkansas will also regain the services of Trey Holloway and Justin White in 2006. Holloway was having an excellent season as the Hogs’ closer in 2005 before a fractured left elbow ended his season. The left-hander will be looking to return to the form that had opposing lineups all tangled up early last season. White was lost to Tommy John surgery after just one appearance.
Joining the bullpen staff is junior Brian McLelland, who turned in an outstanding summer in the Texas Collegiate League. He was named to the TCL All-Star team and will be a quality arm in the pen with a 90-plus mph fastball which features excellent sink. Daryl Maday is also looking to harness a tremendous upside and pitch quality innings out of the bullpen.
A stable of newcomers, both freshmen and junior college transfers, will play an immediate role in strengthening Arkansas’ pitching staff.
With 18 newcomers on the roster, the Hogs will have plenty of help filling needs in the lineup, rotation and bullpen. The coaching staff is excited about the fresh faces that have joined the Razorbacks and believe several newcomers have the chance to step in and help right away.
The entire group of position players is extremely athletic and versatile with several vying for playing time in the infield that is minus last year’s starting shortstop and third baseman.
The position players include the following: Taylor Ardoin (Ville Platte, La./Sacred Heart/INF), Kevin Carby (Tulsa, Okla./Booker T. Washington HS/INF), Jerrod Carroll (Abilene, Texas/Abilene HS/INF/OF), James Ewing (Beaumont, Texas/Westbrook HS/INF), Logan Forsythe (Memphis, Tenn./Christian Brothers HS/INF/OF), Tyler Goodro (Omaha, Neb./Creighton Prep/1B/C), Thomas Hauskey (Springdale/Springdale HS/C), Wayne Hrozek (The Woodlands/The Woodlands HS/OF), Hunter London (Edmond, Okla./Deer Creek HS), Nick Makris (Pine Bluff, Ark./Pine Bluff HS/INF), Tommy McClain (El Cajon, Calif./Valhalla HS/C), Mitch McCuistian (Claremore, Okla./Claremore HS/INF), Brad Secrist (Joplin, Mo./Joplin HS/INF/OF) and Brandon Barr (Corpus Christi, Texas/C).
A couple of these newcomers have already caught the eye of the coaching staff with their pure athleticism and performance during morning workouts and conditioning sessions.
“True freshman James Ewing is having a very good preseason,” Van Horn said. “He is a very good offensive player. We really like his swing. He is mature enough and solid enough that he will be able to contribute a lot as a freshman. I think Logan Forsythe is another freshman that can come in and play right away because he is strong, athletic and can really run. Physically he is more like a sophomore or a junior.”
Carby, the infielder from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa is the lone Razorback signee to spurn the MLB draft and come to school. Carby was an 18th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is another player whose athleticism will give him a chance to play right away.
The new pitchers include freshman right-hander Brett Bollman (Claremore, Okla./Claremore HS), left-hander Chad Coldiron (Fayetteville/Fayetteville HS) and right-hander Michael Wild (Plano, Texas/Jesuit College Prep). Chris Rhoads (North Little Rock/North Little Rock HS) is the lone junior college transfer out of Platt (Kan.) Community College.
“We feel like all four of these pitchers can come in and help right away,” Van Horn said. “They give us an opportunity to solidify our starting rotation and help in the bullpen. A couple of kids we are looking to plug into a spot in the bullpen or rotation. Guys like Brett Bollman and Michael Wild have a chance to pitch right away because they throw strikes.”