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Question: This team has shown the ability to rally in the late innings. It seems to will itself to victory sometimes. Is this unusual?
Dave Van Horn: Baseball is a game of streaks. I think that once you put together a dramatic finish, the team feels like it can do it again. Anytime we are within two runs in the late innings, we know we are capable of doing it again and winning that game. We believe that now.
Ever since the Memphis game at the start of our season when we scored two in the ninth to win that game, we don't feel like the game is out of reach if we are within two or three runs. We expect to win. We believe we will win.
We have some guys who like to be in clutch situations. I think that much is obvious. They come to bat in those situations, they like it. And, our bullpen has held things close in the late innings more times than not. That helps you because you are within striking distance in your last at bats. Our bullpen has not been giving up too much. That gives us a chance for those late rallies.
I feel good about the way our guys have competed. If you look real close, we have a lot of guys in our bullpen that were not recruited by SEC schools. They don't throw real hard except maybe Scott Roehl. I call them our no-name bullpen. They are a bunch of no names.
Q: When you look at the Arkansas pitching staff, the thing that stands out is the way they throw quality strikes. Very seldom do your pitchers give up a walk. In 408 innings this season, Arkansas pitchers have given up only 86 walks. That's less than two per nine innings, an outstanding statistic. Do you do anything unusual with your pitchers to encourage them to throw strikes?
DVH: From day one, we told our pitchers that they have to throw strikes to pitch for us. We don't have anyone on our staff that can over power hitters. Roehl throws hard, but everyone else is in the 80 to 85 range. That's not much as far as velocity. We stress putting the ball in a good location with movement because at that velocity we are very hittable. We've done that.
I think Dave Jorn, our pitching coach, harped on them a lot that I wouldn't pitch them if they don't throw strikes.
One of the things we did in the fall that I think is unique were some drills that we did in our PFP, which stands for Pitching Fielder's Practice. We had our infielders and catchers with our pitchers and worked on specific plays. Everyone does that. You have a pitcher deliver the ball and a coach with a fungo bat that puts the ball in play so that you can cover situations. We have our pitchers pitch the ball out of the stretch. If they don't throw a strike, they do some running. It might be a lap, or it might be to the foul pole. It isn't punishment because it's not that hard. But, it's a reminder about focus and concentration. They ought to be able to do it 80 percent of the time. I think it is unique and it helps us in real games. It does take away from the repetitions because the pitchers are running some of the time. But, we make them throw strikes, and I'm not just talking about throwing it down the middle.
Q:Your team seems to have more pop than last year's team. They've hit 50 home runs in 46 games. Last year, the Hogs hit 50 in 63 games. Ryan Fox has gone from a .256 hitter with nine homers last year, to leading the SEC in homers with 18 to go with a .321 average. Do you focus on the long ball in your coaching?
DVH: We do want to have more pop. But, I wouldn't say we want them to try to hit home runs. I will say we have done some things to help us hit more home runs.
First, we got in the weight room early. We really stressed that. The first four weeks of school we came in early in the morning, at 6 a.m. and did that four days a week. We got stronger. Then, we did a lot of weight lifting in the afternoon the rest of the fall.
But, I think a lot has to do with their swings. Matt Deggs, our hitting coach, stresses a short, compact swing through the ball. He stresses staying inside the baseball and staying back. The ball is jumping off our bats. A lot of that has to do with a strong lower half and staying back.
If you look at Ryan Fox, he isn't trying to hit home runs. He's trying to stay on breaking pitches a little longer and that has helped keep some of his real power shots fair. A lot of the breaking pitches he hit last year hooked foul. He's not doing that as much this season because he's staying back on the ball with a shorter swing. He's hitting with power, but he's not pulling as many pitches. Deggs has done a good job with our hitters and Ryan is a great example of that.
Q: In preseason, it didn't seem like you thought this team would be a strong contender in the SEC, but it has done better than expected. Your team is 33-13 as it heads into the last two weekends of the regular season. Where are you with the development of your program at Arkansas?
DVH: I'm not sure where I thought we would be this year. I do know that everyone else in the SEC thought we would be dead last. Most didn't think we could win 25 games. I will say that I'm proud of the way this team has competed. They play hard and they are tough.
One thing that I will say is that I was just guessing in preseason where it concerned our pitching. I didn't see that we had many pitchers that were recruited by any other SEC schools. They have over achieved. I'll say that.
As far as where we are headed, it's hard to predict what next year will be like because we don't have many freshmen and sophomores on this team. We don't know how many of these juniors will be back because they may be drafted. We lose some good seniors.
We have signed a good class. We have 15 high school kids that we hope to bring in that are signed that are very good. We have some good hitters in this bunch and we have some good raw arms. We should have pitchers that we hope to develop that have better velocity than what we have now.
What I do see is that we have some guys on our current squad that have not hit that well in conference play. They've struggled in conference play. Guys like Clay Goodwin, Scott Bridges and Scott Hode ... if you look at their SEC numbers ... need to pick it up in conference play. So with what we've signed, I'd say the guys that are coming back need to pick it up a little next year.
Q: In the past, Arkansas has signed good talent, but not much of it has made it to campus because the professional money has been tough to ignore. Do you worry about that wrecking this class this summer?
DVH: I think that's always a concern. We lost some players at Nebraska. But, we got a lot of good players to come to school, too.
I think in talking with Coach (Norm) DeBriyn, and we talk every single day, about what happened here of late is that maybe they did lose some guys that went in the top three to five rounds. You know that is going to happen. That's big money. But, they were also losing some guys that were drafted in the 15th round or later. That is something you have to keep from happening so much.
We have signed a few more players than Norm did here in the past to protect that from happening. We will lose some. We lost some at Nebraska, but we fought hard to keep them and we did keep quite a few. Also, we work hard to stay in communication with our players. We develop relationships. I tell them that I'll offer them a high percentage scholarship if they will promise me that they won't sign (a pro contract) unless they go in the top five rounds. Then, when they are drafted, you hope they live up to their promise. Most of them will do that. You have to convince them that they are going to a strong program with good coaches.
I can tell you about one in the Dallas Metroplex that is having a great year. He's leading the Dallas area high school teams in home runs. His name is Doug Hamblin. He just told a scout with the Royals that he was going to college unless he is drafted in the first three rounds. We hope to get him. He can play first or third. If he does what he's promised, he'll be here unless someone takes him really early. I've talked to him an awfully lot on the phone and he's been firm about his plans to come here all along.
I think the most important thing you can do is work hard to develop your players. If you do that, high school players will know that they are coming to a program that will make them better. So, we strive to create a strong work ethic within our program.
I will be honest and say that there were some top players ... three or four first rounders ... nearby in Oklahoma that we made no attempt to recruit. Why spend money when you know they are going to get a big pro contract and you can't get them to school. Yes, one of them might sign with Oklahoma or Oklahoma State and you will have to play against them. But, the odds aren't real good that they will go to college. If they do sign and play college, we will have to beat them and we will beat them.
Brady Toops looks into the dugout for a sign.
Cara Roetzel performs atop the dugout between innings.
Photos by Tom Ewart