FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The University of Arkansas baseball opened fall practice on Tuesday afternoon at Baum Stadium.
Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks welcomed 20 newcomers for the 2008 season while returning 15 lettermen. The Sept. 4 start to fall practice is one of the earliest in school history and is scheduled to run through Oct. 18. During that time the Hogs will be able to conduct 33 practices.
The early start to an extended fall practice is due to the NCAA’s new rule giving teams a 45-day window for fall practice. This should give the coaching staff more time to acclimate a talent crop of newcomers.
Below is a fall baseball preview and a look ahead to the 2008 season.
The Arkansas baseball team welcomes a crop of 20 newcomers and a nucleus of important veterans to campus this fall as preparations for the 2008 season begin.
Head coach Dave Van Horn begins his sixth season at his alma mater with an entirely new starting rotation on the mound, and an exciting batch of talented hitters along with a very different and challenging schedule.
The 2008 season is the first with the NCAA’s new condensed schedule that has the regular season starting the third week of February. The Razorbacks will play 25 games in the first five and a half weeks of the season.
“With the NCAA moving the start of the 2008 season back by three weeks it gives us less days to get our 56 games in,” Van Horn said. “We are going to play a lot of games early, but I think the new schedule is good. When you have a lot of new players it gives them a chance to adjust to Division I baseball before SEC play starts.”
The reduced time frame is not the only hazard awaiting the Diamond Hogs’ schedule in 2008. A treacherous non-conference schedule that includes perennial College World Series contenders Arizona State and Nebraska along with Texas A&M, Kansas, Oral Roberts and Ohio State, will provide stiff challenges outside of the rugged Southeastern Conference.
“When I look at the 2008 schedule I sometimes shake my head and ask ‘What have I done?’ because this is the toughest schedule that maybe Arkansas has ever had,” Van Horn said. “You throw in our 30 SEC games and then add mid-week games at Nebraska and at Arizona State, we are going to find out how good we are. It may take us a little time, but we will continue to get better. Hopefully, by the time that first SEC series rolls around we will have it figured out.”
The fall practice schedule will be new and improved just in time to acclimate a crop of newcomers that has the unenviable task of replacing such names as Nick Schmidt, Danny Hamblin, Jess Todd and Jake Dugger.
“The new practice rules give us a 45-day window to practice in the fall,” Van Horn said. “We get 33 practices instead of low 20s and it couldn’t have happened at a better time for our program. Now we are going to be able to get a better look at these young guys, and they are going to be able to get better accustomed to college baseball.”
Those newcomers will get to mix it up with veteran returners such as Team USA member Logan Forsythe, outfielder Casey Coon, infielders Ben Tschepikow, Tim Smalling and catcher Jeff Nutt. On the mound, sophomore lefty Dallas Keuchel returns to anchor a staff that awaits the return of junior Shaun Seibert, who is coming off Tommy John surgery last March.
“I think that fall ball is going to determine a lot more than it has in the past,” Van Horn said. “Over the last few years we knew who was going to start in probably six or seven of the defensive positions. We just needed to figure out the batting order, and we knew our ace was going to be Nick Schmidt. This fall will be big as far as determining not just our rotation, but our top 10 pitchers – especially with the new schedule format in 2008.”
Arkansas’ 2008 offense will look a little different than the last couple of years, but it has a chance to be even more productive. Gone are some of the big bats and frustrating strikeouts, replaced by line-drive hitters that can bring a little more consistency to the Razorbacks’ lineup.
“We lost some quality players, but we also brought in some quality players,” Van Horn said. “We have some young players that are just waiting for their shot. Realistically, if they got 200 at-bats they will probably put up the same numbers, maybe in a different way, maybe not as much power, but a better batting average and on-base percentage. I think we are going to have a dangerous lineup from top to bottom this year.”
Leading the offensive attack is Forsythe, who is coming off an outstanding sophomore season in cardinal and white and maybe an even better summer with Team USA. Forsythe had a team-best .347 batting average for UA last year with nine home runs, 18 stolen bases, 55 RBI and a .431 on-base percentage. He then turned in an MVP-type performance for Team USA.
“Logan is one of the most improved players I have ever coached from when he arrived as a freshman to the start of his junior year,” Van Horn said. “He has always had the heart and determination. As a sophomore he put it all together and became probably our toughest out at the plate because he really knew the strike zone and made pitchers pitch to him.
“Defensively, he is also one of the top third basemen I have ever coached. The thing about Logan is that he can play anywhere. He could be one of our best shortstops, if not the best second baseman, an outfielder or he could catch. He is just so valuable to our team, and then you throw in the fact that he is a leader.”
Coon was an RBI machine last season with 71, which ranks tied for eighth all-time at Arkansas. He also hit nine home runs and 13 doubles as he transitioned from an infielder into the Hogs’ everyday left fielder. Coon will be a key cog in the Hogs’ lineup this season.
Jeff Nutt is back for his senior campaign and will see more time behind the plate this season as well as his duties as the designated hitter. Nutt hit just .274 last season but pounded out a team-high 16 doubles with 41 RBI. He will split time behind the plate with incoming junior college transfer Ryan Cisterna, who was a 46th round draft pick of the Washington Nationals.
Ben Tschepikow and Tim Smalling return to anchor the middle infield for the Diamond Hogs. Tschepikow is trying to put numerous injuries behind him and return to his freshman form at the plate. The second baseman hit .279 last season with nine doubles. Smalling started a team-best 45 games at shortstop as a freshman with a .288 batting average, two home runs and 24 RBI.
“We really think Ben (Tschepikow) could have a big year,” Van Horn said. “He has played with three or four injuries that have really set him back. During his freshman year he swung the bat extremely well. He could be a big offensive player for us this year.”
Sean Jones, Wayne Hrozek and Aaron Murphree return in the outfield and all three have at least one year of Division I baseball under their belt. Hrozek stepped up for the Hogs late last season with a .298 average, 20 RBI and several big hits. Jones and Murphree both produced good summers in the Texas Collegiate League.
“Wayne is a guy that jumps to the top a little bit due to the fact he got some big hits down the stretch for us last season,” Van Horn said. “He had a very good summer and always works hard.”
With a solid group of veterans in place, the talented group of incoming players could give the UA batting order some punch. Freshmen infielder Andy Wilkins and outfielder/pitcher Brett Eibner bring impressive swings and a lot of power to the plate. Eibner was a fourth-round pick in the MLB Draft in June by the Astros, while Wilkins went in the 25th round to Texas.
The addition of junior college transfers Chase Leavitt and Scott Lyons will make a big impact as well.
“Chase Leavitt played second base and outfield in junior college last year,” Van Horn said. “He went out and had a great summer with a wood bat, hitting over .360. He has a tremendous eye at the plate and has a chance to be a leadoff type guy for us and play center field. Scott Lyons is a young JC infielder with some Division I experience. He started at shortstop at Cal State-Northridge and as a freshman hit .300. He then went to junior college his second year and can play short, second or third base.”
THE PITCHING STAFF
The Razorbacks will feature an almost completely new starting rotation in 2008. And in the process UA pitching coach Dave Jorn must find five reliable starters, not just three, to accommodate the new schedule that features many five-game weeks.
“When you recruit a young guy on the mound you have to project a little bit,” Van Horn said. “To have a freshman, like Nick Schmidt, come in and dominate as a true freshman is rare. We have some guys that have been in our program for a year, been through the SEC and worked with Coach (Dave) Jorn, and we feel like those guys are going to be the mainstay of our pitching staff.”
Beyond Seibert’s 22 career starts and Keuchel’s nine career starts, the only Diamond Hog pitchers with starting experience are sophomores Stephen Richards (1) and Scott Limbocker (1).
“Realistically, I think Shaun Seibert is going to be able to pitch for us this spring, but if he is at 80 percent of his best that would be great,” Van Horn said. “They say to be at your best after Tommy John surgery takes 18 months; well we can’t get to 18 months. We can get to 12, 13 or 14 months as the season goes on, but we are going to leave it up to Shaun as to how he feels. Credit to Shaun, he is on a mission to get back and working as hard as anyone I have ever seen. I know he will be better than ever one day.”
Keuchel had his ups and downs as a freshman but finished with a 6-3 record and a 5.88 ERA. He had a good summer and will be called upon to be a stalwart at the front of the Razorbacks’ rotation.
“Dallas had a chance to go and pitch in the best college baseball summer league in the country – the Cape Cod League,” Van Horn said. “He held his own as a true freshman in a league that is mostly sophomores that have been in college for two years.”
Two guys that have the coaching staff excited and have some experience are sophomore left-handers Richards and Limbocker.
“Stephen Richards went out and had a tremendous summer,” Van Horn said. “He really threw the ball well. Stephen is an upper 80s left-hander that is a good competitor with plus-stuff. Scott Limbocker put up really good numbers this summer. We need to get him to throw a few more strikes because teams did not hit him. They just didn’t hit him. He just needs to do a little better job on his inning-to-walk ratio and he could be a guy for us.”
Redshirt freshman Sam Murphy is another guy the coaches think could have a big impact this season along with sophomore RHP Evan Cox, who gave the Razorbacks several quality appearances down the stretch last season. Cox’s low 90s fastball and aggressive approach should be an important component out of the bullpen.
At the end of the game, the Hogs will count on senior Travis Hill, who came on late last season to close things out for Arkansas. He finished the season with a 3-2 record, three saves and a 4.84 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 44.2 innings.
Several newcomers should come in and help immediately, including transfers Mike Bolsinger (RHP, Grayson CC), Cliff Springston (LHP, Baylor) and true freshmen James Mahler, Kendal Korbal and Eibner.