Maybe it was just my imagination, but the sound of the ball hitting bat was ringing louder than in many years at Baum Stadium as Arkansas began full squad practices Friday afternoon for the 2015 baseball season. Coach Dave Van Horn was smiling.
“I think everyone is excited about the new baseball,” Van Horn said. “Players, coaches and fans, really everyone. It's going to be very good.”
College baseball has gone to a lower seamed baseball with a little more pop after enduring low scoring since the introduction of dead bats. The bats are largely the same, although Van Horn said college hitters can handle a heavier version that does has produced better results.
“I know the high school hitters struggle with those heavier models, but our guys can handle them,” he said. “Each company has five models and two or them are a little heavier. That's the one most teams are using now. Our guys pretty much all go with that model.”
Van Horn loves this time of year anyway, but the new baseballs make it even more exciting.
“I know you are seeing coaches and players tweeting messages with a countdown to the first pitch, or the first practice, so we all feel excited,” he said. “But there is definitely more excitement with the new baseball. You see the effects in batting practice.
“This one is really got pop when it first comes out of the wrapper. After we knocked it around a little bit, it's not as much. But the new ones we use for games will be like that so it will be good. It's better. You see good results when we scrimmage. I think the bat companies figured out the bats a little better, too. I think everyone will like this.”
Van Horn likes his team, especially the competition for position players.
“We are pretty much two deep everywhere,” he said. “It's going to be tough to write down a lineup. I told the players that. They need to help me and show me that they need to be in a lineup. They will be the one who write it with their play and I tell them that.
“We've got a team that I really like because of their attitude and the way they work. They have shown that in the fall and this semester, too.”
Van Horn thinks it will be an improved defensive team, because of competition and the extra work that the new indoor facility has allowed.
“We've been able to do so much more,” he said. “We never got that much work in the fall. We've had two practices going at the same time. It's like a basketball player has his own gym.”
Van Horn said it's a healthy team for the start of practices. Freshman Luke Bonfield is still “a little gimpy” from surgery to fix a broken ankle in the fall. But it hasn't affected him at the plate.
“Luke is swinging the bat real well,” Van Horn said. “You can see him limp when he turns the bases. There is a little limp there. But he's stronger. He got in some lifting in the fall when he was out and you can see the strength.”
The Hogs won't have freshman catcher Nathan Rodriguez, ruled ineligible for a unrevealed issue. Van Horn said catching depth still isn't an issue despite losing Jake Wise to graduation and Blake Baxendale to transfer.
“To be honest, we didn't think Nathan will make it to school anyway,” Van Horn said. “We thought he'd sign. So we brought in Tucker Pennell to start.”
Pennell is battling Alex Gosser for that spot. Van Horn said Carson Shaddy, Chad Spanburger and Blake Wiggins also could catch. Gosser played some at the end of last year, coming off the redshirt lists when Wise and Baxendale were both injured. Tyler Spoon has also caught in the past.
“Pennell showed us what he can do defensively in the fall,” Van Horn said. “He threw out five for five in one scrimmage. He's shown an ability to hit, too. Gosser is improved from last year. We are fine at catcher.”
There is enough depth there that Van Horn might use a deeper roster in pinch-hit roles.
“We could use three catchers,” he said. “We could pinch hit in situations and just role in another catcher. We do have some depth and versatility with this roster.”
The question marks are at pitcher.
“We've got good arms we just need to find out who can pitch,” Van Horn said, noting experience isn't as deep.
The starting rotation looks good with Trey Killian, Zach Jackson, Dominic Taccolini, James Teague and Keaton McKinney as likely candidates. Jacob Stone is a proven closer, but Van Horn wonders who will get the job done in the middle.
“Closer is so important,” he said. “I want someone to give the ball to at the end. We like Stone there. We just need to find someone to get us there.
“You know it's a little like last year this time. We just didn't know who was going to do that. We thought it might be Jalen Beeks and Chris Oliver, but we put them in as starters and they did so well we never changed it. They never went to the bullpen.”
There is an interesting battle at shortstop between Bret McAfee and Michael Bernal. It could be that McAfee plays short and Bernal shifts to second. There is more depth elsewhere in the infield with newcomers Rick Nomura and Max Hogan. Clark Eagan is penciled in at short and will be Van Horn's leadoff man. The outfield is solid with Joe Serrano, Andrew Benintendi, Spoon and Bonfield.
The freshman class enjoyed impressive moments in the fall. Spanburger, a big lefty, hit some towering shots over the wall in left. Bonfield has power to all fields.
Interestingly, Van Horn has not named captains, but not because the team lacks leadership.
“I think it's just a lot of pressure sometimes at this level,” Van Horn said. “I want them all to be captains, along with the coaches. I'm tip toeing around the question I guess, but I'd say Trey Killian is a leader. Clark Eagan is quiet, but he'll say something. So will Tyler Spoon.
“Maybe there are four or five more who would say something if it's not right. I think we'll be good as far as leadership. I just decided we wouldn't vote on them this year, but we have good leaders on the team.”
The Hogs open the season against North Dakota on Feb. 13 with a first pitch at 3:05 p.m.
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