When visitors watched fall baseball practice at Arkansas, most noticed the ball flying significantly further. A change to a flat seamed ball will make the college game more fun this coming season. Head coach Dave Van Horn gets that. There will be more home runs, for all teams.
But when the ball stays in the park, the 2015 Razorbacks will handle it better. Van Horn thinks the Hogs are much improved as far as defense. It could be that it’s just a matter of experienced talent, but it also could be early dividends from the new indoor practice facility opened in August.
“The weather was great, but a big factor for us getting better (on defense) was the restructuring of our practice schedule this fall,” Van Horn said after the team completed its fall world series on Oct. 19.
“We got in a lot of work. We were able to split up our practices to use both our facilities and there just wasn’t a lot of standing around. It was a lot easier to get in all of the work we wanted, a lot of work.
“It led to our best fall I can remember. I just told our players (after the final Red-White game) that these first 35 practices this fall, counting the series, was the best fall we’ve had here.
“We’ve had four and a half weeks of outstanding practice. It’s never been this good.”
Van Horn congratulated the hold-over players who set the tone with a fantastic work ethic. The newcomers followed suit.
“Our older guys set a good example,” Van Horn said. “We have six new junior college transfers. They all said they had never been through something this tough. And, I know our 14 new high school players haven’t been through something like this. We got some excellent work.”
It’s a class of newcomers that Baseball America rated No. 4 in the country for what enrolled in school. The Hogs withstood the draft better than in recent years, getting to school drafted notables as outfielder Luke Bonfield, pitcher Keaton McKinney, catcher Nathan Rodriguez and outfielder Blake Wiggins.
“We held our class together maybe the best since I’ve been here,” said Van Horn who enters his 13th year at the helm of the program. “We have a lot of talent coming in and plenty of returners who can help them gain some experience and they can push each other a little bit.”
But it was some of the battles by holdovers that might galvanize the 2015 Hogs. Brett McAfee and Michael Bernal dueled for the shortstop job and that won’t be settled anytime soon. They combined to handle 32 chances in the Red-White series, with just one error, by Bernal.
“We are a lot better defensively,” Van Horn said. “We fielded it very well. We are not two deep everywhere, but we are deeper. We are steady in the outfield and very good in the infield.”
McAfee injured his back early last season and was never a factor. He spent the summer in a lifting and stretching program that paid dividends. He’s gained 15 pounds, up to 190. Bernal handled the shortstop duties last season with McAfee out.
“They are both better,” Van Horn said. “They are having one heckuva battle. It may be that both are in the lineup. One of them can probably move to second. It’s a good problem.”
There may be another similar situation at catcher, where the Hogs ran out last season because of injuries, forcing Alex Gosser to burn a redshirt late in the year. Jake Wise has graduated and Van Horn filled up with catchers to avoid a repeat of last year.
“Two times as a coach I’ve run out of catchers,” Van Horn said. “I never want to be there again. We have three or four now who can really catch.”
Gosser is back for his sophomore campaign. He’ll have a tough time holding off Rodriguez, highly regarded Californian and junior college transfer Tucker Pennell. Wiggins can catch, but he’s trying to earn a spot in the lineup as an infielder/outfielder. He may have the bat to make it happen. Chad Spanburger, a lefty with big power, also can catch, but worked at first base in the fall.
“Rodriguez had a tremendous fall catching and throwing,” Van Horn said. “No one ran on him. He has fall was as good as I can remember for a freshman catcher.
“Pennell was good, too. He had one scrimmage where he threw out five of five. He had a tremendous fall. He showed tenacity at the plate and was a tough out.”
Pennell tied for the team lead in the fall series with six. Andrew Benintendi and Bobby Wernes also had six.
Spanburger was the rage for much of the fall. The 6-2, 220-pounder hit five home runs. Van Horn said when Spanburger connects, the wind is not a factor.
“He didn’t do much in the series,” Van Horn said, noting his 1-for-18 week. “The pitchers diced him up in those games. But he was good most of the fall. He hit some a long way.”
There were some injuries, but none should be a factor in the spring. Pitcher Trey Killian, the Hogs’ likely Friday night man, was rested after battling an sore arm in his time with Team USA in the summer. Pitcher James Teague sparkled during the summer, but tweaked a back muscle and was shut down as a precaution.
The real disappointment was a broken ankle sustained by Bonfield early in fall practice. He did enough to back his high draft status.
“We saw real quickly he could swing the bat,” Van Horn said. “We just didn’t get a chance to work with him on his defense. He’s back walking now (after surgery). He was able to do some lifting with the upper body.”
Sophomore Clark Eagan had minor knee surgery, but returned quickly. He batted .313 in the series and looked like the man who sparked the Hogs down the stretch last season in the leadoff spot.
“We worked him at first base,” Van Horn said. “I told him I’d never had a first baseman bat leadoff, but that’s what might happen. He was out a few weeks, but he came right back hitting.”
Infielder Matt Campbell, a junior college transfer, also had surgery, for a thumb injury.
Van Horn praised sophomore outfielder Andrew Benintendi, a regular last season.
“He’s a lot better,” Van Horn said. “He’s much stronger. He will hit some home runs for us this year. He’s really good when he stays through the middle of the field.”
Redshirt freshman Parker Sanburn got the final two victories in the Red-White series, mixing a good fast ball with effective breaking pitches. He’s the brother of former UA fireballer Nolan Sanburn.
“We think he can help us in the spring,” Van Horn said. “He’s got a very good arm and has command of that fast ball.”
Sophomore Zach Jackson couldn’t command his fast ball in his first series outing and walks were his undoing, just like in the NCAA loss at Virginia. But he bounced back in his second outing and was untouchable.
“He’s got a great breaking ball, big league,” Van Horn said. “The key for Zach, when he commands that fast ball, when couldn’t touch him this fall. He’s just got to get that consistent command.”
Righthander Dominic Taccolini bested Jackson in the series opener. Taccolini recorded 15 strikeouts in 11-plus innings. Freshman Keaton McKinney was next with six in six-plus innings, his only outing. McKinney’s change-up is more than good enough for SEC play.
“Taccolini had a very good fall,” Van Horn said. “He’s much smoother in his delivery. He had a couple of really good outings.”
Van Horn said the team enters another important phase of fall practices, a series of individual workouts.
“We still have a few days to go in our 45 given to us by the NCAA,” he said. “When they first get here, we don’t change much. We want to give them a chance to show us what they have, just evaluation.
“You change them and they have failure, they come back and say they didn’t have a chance. After we’ve seen them for five weeks, we know their weaknesses and we can help them a little bit. I really like this time of year because we are going to work on a few things, a few tweaks.”
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