Van Horn: Hogs Still Good

Arkansas baseball has been a post-season staple and should make the tournament again with solid offense, defense and a talented, but inexperienced pitching staff.

Arkansas has made the NCAA baseball tournament every year in 11 seasons under Dave Van Horn. Expectations are down a bit this year, but the Hogs may still have enough in the tank to get there again.

Van Horn told a packed house at media day that he likes the 2014 Razorbacks. He would like them a lot more if a couple of last year's aces had not taken the money after a high pro draft selection. But that doesn't mean they couldn't still make a nice run in postseason if things fall right.

Van Horn thinks a lot about his 2014 team although only one of the national ranking services has Arkansas in the top 25.

"If we had two pitchers come back this year (out of seven drafted and signed), we'd be ranked in the top five," the Arkansas baseball coach said. "We are that much better on offense and defense.

"We should have gone to Omaha with what that team had last year. And, we could still go this year, but it would be more of a long shot."

The Hogs struggled to score runs last year and were below average on defense for an SEC team. It flips around this year. There is no experience on the mound, but the rest of the team is improved.

It reminds Van Horn of three years ago when he rolled pitchers sometimes every inning when they were finding out about the likes of Barrett Astin, Colby Suggs, Ryne Stanek and Brandon Moore.

"That year, we got 'em in and got 'em out," Van Horn said. "We usually had two guys up in the bullpen all the time. We just didn't want to leave them out there and have an inning get out of hand. I do see this year a lot like that."

It's not clear who will be the weekend starters even with the Feb. 14 season opener looming against Appalachian State. Van Horn said there are several candidates and the first couple of weekends several will get shots.

Jalen Beeks and Trey Killian may get the first shots. Both are second-year Razorbacks, Beeks a junior and Killian a sophomore. Beeks was the setup man out of the bullpen last year. Killian had some starts early, but fell out of the rotation because his second pitch was not consistent.

"I love Jalen at the back of the game," Van Horn said. "He'll get an opportunity to start. Trey may start a game over the first two weekends. Chris Oliver has a big arm, just not enough experience. He will start a game early.

"Then, we have a freshman, Zack Jackson who could be special one day. He hasn't thrown too many pitches below 93 since he's been here. Alex Phillips is another new guy who really throws four pitches for strikes. He reminds me of Charley Boyce, 86 max but four pitches for strikes. He has a very good changeup."

Lefty Colin Poche, who has grown two inches since the fall, is another fascinating possibility as a starter. He's had some arm issues this winter, but didn't feel pain in a short bullpen workout this week.

"Short bullpen means he only threw 50 feet," Van Horn said. "It went well. We will bring him back slowly, maybe getting him 20 pitches in a game. We just need to get his arm back in shape."

Pitching coach Dave Jorn said it's about teaching a young staff how to work.

"That's the whole thing," he said. "They have to learn how to compete, learn how to go about business. If you can teach them to work every day, you've accomplished a lot. They are going to have adversity and bad days. They have to learn to handle that and you do that by working the same. Nothing changes.

"It's about learning how to be a man and grow up. But I like their makeup. We just have to kep working, don't change anything about work ethic day to day."

Killian has a big-time fast ball and knows how to locate it. He can live on the outside edge. But he wasn't good the second time through the batting order as a starter because of a lack of a second and third pitch.

"He's getting that," Jorn said. "He's getting some tilt on his slider. He got his feet wet last year and had a good summer against good people. He's not super duper with that second pitch, but he's more consistent."

Killian, the former basketball/baseball star at Mountain Home with Norfork roots, worked hard on his secondary pitches in the summer.

"Last year, my second pitch was sort of a cutter," Killian said. "It developed real slowly into what you'd call a slider now. I've got a little more downward tilt to it and I'm hopeful it's a close-out pitch."

Killian has always been a strike thrower, but he didn't have that out pitch to throw on 0-and-2 and 1-and-2.

"I've got the slider and I've got a changeup," he said. "You need something to get past the hitters the second time through. I can spot and locate my fast ball. I'm getting better and more confidence with the other pitches, especially the slider."

Van Horn agrees.

"That slider tended to flatten out last year," Van Horn said. "So it's mechanics and consistency with him. If he can get that downward tilt, he can be a starter. Those sliders that flatten out, they tend to get hit a long way."

It's clear the Hogs like their offense. Hitting coach Tony Vitello said there is a core "of about six guys" who have been consistent at the plate this winter. He especially likes attitude and work ethic.

"It's about working all the way until the end," Vitello said. "We put a picture up in our room of the play at the end of the Kentucky basketball game, the dunk (by Michael Qualls). We said that was the case of a Razorback working 1.5 seconds longer than everyone else on the floor. That's what we have to do in baseball, too."

Vitello comes early and stays late as a coach. He said players have embraced that with extra optional practice.

"I'm up here 10 to 12 hours and so are the guys," he said. "I've noticed seven or eight always up here past when I'm here. I don't just want to stay late. I want to be efficient, too."

Vitello said he's a "note writer." He leaves messages in the lockers for players when they arrive.

"It may be individually written, or it might be the same thing for the whole group," he said. "But even when I write it the same for 20, it really might be designed for one to get the message.

"I want to create group unity. This team has ability and we need to play as one. That's the approach.

One of the most talented is second baseman Brian Anderson, converting from the outfield or the left side of the infield last year. He was error prone when he tried third or short over the last two years, but he's always been a high .300 hitter, even in SEC play.

Anderson follows Dominic Ficociello as converting to second. He said it made him feel more comfortable about a 6-3 guy playing that spot.

"I knew it could be done," he said. "I think it's gone well. Coach Van Horn played second in pro ball and he's helped me with footwork. I think a lot of my errors had to do with bad footwork in the past."

And, a bad grip.

"Coach Jorn noticed after last season that I held the ball with three fingers, not two," he said. "That's a changeup grip and that's what I was throwing to first."

It went everywhere. Not any more.

"I think that's settled out," Anderson said. "I am not having that trouble anymore."

Van Horn said he still thinks Anderson could play third, with the new grip. But he believes his best position as a pro is second and it's time to make that move.

"I think part of moving him and keeping him there is to just forget about the problems he had on the left side," Van Horn said. "He looks good at second now. I think our defense is much better now."

Van Horn said the Hogs are a little behind in outside work over the last week because of ice and snow, but did have a good start to January that put them in good shape overall with practice time.

They will take the tarp off the field and scrimmage briefly Saturday before heading to the mall for a autograph signing afternoon.

"The tarp comes off at 10 a.m. and we'll get some time in," Van Horn said. "At the mall, if the ceiling was higher, we'd throw it around there, too."

The Hogs are getting healthy after some winter surgeries. Andrew Benintendi is close to full speed after thumb surgery in December. Both Tyler Spoon and Jake Wise have had no trouble after double sports hernia surgery. Outfielder Joe Serrano has had a groin injury and sore shoulder, but should be fine for opening day.

"Jake is one of the best throw-catch catchers in the country," Van Horn said. "He's had elbow surgery and he's throwing fine. He is running now, but not perfect there. But if you ask me if he's going to be in the lineup next weekend, I'd say yes."

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