After losing Zack Cox, Brett Eibner, Andy Wilkins and Drew Smyly, does this Arkansas baseball team really have a chance to be good again? Can the major league draft rip the heart out of a team and will you really survive in the SEC?
It's too early to tell much about a 7-1 start, but it looks like Dave Van Horn has some talent on hand to give it a shot. The newcomers on this team are fine prospects. It's just too hard to tell if they can get up to speed fast enough before the Hogs begin SEC play in three weeks.
What we do know is that pitching and defense are going to be top priority with the way power numbers are dropping around the country with these new bats that are deader than a door nail. Through eight games this season the Hogs have hit two home runs, the same number the opposition has cranked.
The good news is that the Hogs can pitch and play defense. A young pitching staff has fantastic arms and the defense is fielding at a .977 clip. That's winning baseball. The pitching is holding opposition batting averages to a .205 average. The Hogs have struck out 73 opposing batters while walking just 28. Again, that will win you baseball games.
In our early analysis, freshmen pitchers Brandon Moore, Ryne Stanek, Barret Astin and Nolan Sanburn appear to be exceptional. Sophomore transfer Cade Lynch is right with that group. It appears the Hogs are going with a weekend starting rotation for conference play -- if things hold up the next two weekends -- of Stanek, Moore and Lynch. DJ Baxendale is the best pitcher on the team, but he's going to close or pitch in any situation that could mean a win early in a weekend series.
Van Horn wants Baxendale to fill the same kind of a role as Jay Sawatski did as the Hogs climbed all the way to the College World Series in 2004. The Hogs were SEC West champs and shared the SEC overall crown with Georgia that season. Sawatski closed early on the weekend and if he was still fresh when Sunday rolled around, he started the series finale.
"The fireworks don't start until the eighth or ninth innings -- sometimes the seventh -- in college baseball," Van Horn said. "That's when we want DJ to be ready. He's our most experienced pitcher. We want him in those situations."
The Hogs have some hitting, but not as much power as the last two seasons when the Hogs set school records for home runs with their three big boppers in the middle of the lineup. Kyle Robinson (.535), Matt Reynolds (.355) and James McCann (.320) look like solid SEC hitters.
The key of late has been true freshman Dominic Ficociello, a switchhitter, in the five slot. He started slowly, but has been on a tear over his last three games. He's 6 for 12 to raise his average to .304.
Ficociello had a pair of base running mistakes in the loss to McNeese State on Tuesday. But Van Horn liked the way the Fullerton, Calif., rookie owned up afterwards. Ficociello said he "ran us out of two big innings and cost us the game. They were just bonehead mistakes and they were both on stuff we work on every day in practice. I need to pick up our team tomorrow after what I did."
Van Horn said he read all of that in the paper Wednesday morning and then watched the freshman take the field with confidence that afternoon.
"He had a good game," Van Horn said. "He made a couple of nice plays in the field, including a scoop on a bad throw," Van Horn said. "He got a hit, two RBI and a walk. I was interested to see what he said in the paper after Tuesday's game and how he would respond.
"I think he's going to be a good player. I liked what I saw today."
The 6-2 Ficociello will play a lot if he can hit like he has the last three games. He's solid in the field. He was a high school shortstop (as were all the starters in the UA infield) and was coveted by hometown college power Fullerton State. He said he knew short wasn't going to be his college position.
"Everyone who saw me thought it would be first or third," he said. "I played some first in the travel leagues, but not much. I'm still trying to get comfortable over there but I like it. The scouts all said I was too tall to play short so I guess I knew all along that I'd play somewhere else in college. I don't mind third either. I just try to take as many ground balls at first and third as I can."
The missing link in the UA order has been Collin Kuhn. After hitting .349 in SEC games and playing in all 64 games (no one else did that for the Hogs last year), Kuhn has started with a .227 average and now has to battle back from a jammed wrist. He sat out Wednesday's game, the first time in 92 games he'd not been in action for the Hogs.
"He's iffy for Friday," Van Horn said after Wednesday's game. "He was sliding in first and jammed the back part of his hand. It's swollen, but nothing is broken."
Out of those penciled in before the season as top pitching candidates, only Geoffrey Davenport has thrown a shoe. The junior lefty got three starts, but is 1-1 with an 8.18. He's given up 13 hits in 11.1 innings and is out of the rotation for this weekend.
The Hogs will open with Stanek in the 3:05 p.m. Friday start against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Game time for Saturday is 2:05 p.m. The Sunday finale will be at 1:05 p.m.
Kyle Robinson is hitting .535 through eight games.
Dave Van Horn has some talented youngsters.
Photos by Marc F. Henning
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