Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn is happy with the good weather so far this season and good health for his baseball team. That was Wednesday afternoon at media day as Van Horn looked forward to almost 70-degree temperatures later in the afternoon.
There are a few nagging injuries to worry with, including a careful start with ace pitcher Trey Killian, the team's likely Friday night starter. Killian is building slowly as far as pitch count and may or may not be ready for opening day, Feb. 13 against North Dakota.
"He sat out in the fall," Van Horn said. "He didn't pitch because we wanted to take care of that elbow. He's fine, but he's not ready yet. He didn't pitch our first weekend. He'll get a little this weekend. But we may not pitch him the first weekend against North Dakota, but hopefully the next one."
First baseman Clark Eagan is nursing a shoulder injury after a rough slide at second base. He may be back to full speed this weekend and should be ready for the opener. Eagan is penciled in as the leadoff hitter, but a power display to start the winter workouts has Van Horn wondering if he should be batting in an RBI spot.
Speaking of power, centerfielder Andrew Benintendi blasted a shot high up on the scoreboard in a scrimmage earlier in the week.
"He's like a different player," Van Horn said. "He looked like a little kid last year. He's up to 185 now and has some power. We don't need him to hit home runs, but he's going to hit some. We may bat him in the three hole."
Benintendi was the leadoff man until Eagan burst onto the scene late in the season, lifting the Hogs to a run that put them in the NCAA tournament.
Among other notes, Van Horn indicated that junior college transfer Tucker Pennell is the likely starter at catcher, but that Alex Gosser and Carson Shaddy would also play. That gives him some flexibility in pinch running, pinch hitting and some interesting chances to platoon. Pennell and Shaddy bat from the left side while Gosser is a lefty hitter.
"Pennell is very good at blocking and shows a lot of polish," Van Horn said. "He can throw, too. He doesn't get rattled. He started two years in junior college and can handle pitchers. Gosser gained some experience last year and Shaddy might be our most improved player."
Overall, Van Horn said the Hogs should score more runs. That would seem obvious with the change to a new baseball that will travel further.
"We'd score more with last year's baseball," Van Horn said. "When we hit this ball, it travels further, but we would hit it further anyway. We are better."
Making out a lineup will be more difficult because of more hitting options.
"We just have some guys that need to show me they can play defense," he said. "We'll have better hitting dispersed through the lineup. I may put a really good hitter in the nine hole, maybe another good one in the seven hole. We have enough to do that."
Van Horn was asked about the always tough SEC schedule that has the Hogs opening on the road at No. 1 Vanderbilt, defending national champs, then hosting No. 2 LSU.
"We are fine with that," he said. "Actually, our guys are excited about it. It's loaded in the SEC. You've got Vandy, LSU and South Carolina is pretty high, too, four, five or six in some polls. There are eight (SEC) teams in the top 25 in the poll I saw this week. We are a little bit of an unknown and we are fine with that."
The starting location looks good again with Killian likely the Friday night guy when SEC play rolls around. Zach Jackson, Dominic Taccolini, James Teague and true freshman sensation Keaton McKinney in the mix. Sophomore Jacob Stone will probably be the closer, although he could get a starting assignment, too. Kyle Pate, freshman from Fayetteville, sparkled in his second outing since the start of practice this semester. He's the lone lefty in the mix for action.
MEDIA DAY NOTES:
Among this writer's personal highlights from baseball media day, I always love seeing the old guys come back. James McCann and Zack Cox, both in pro baseball, were both in the locker room and got to visit with them at length. That's a treat because they are two of my all-time favorite Arkansas players -- in any sport.
Cox has lost a lot of weight and looks great. He's at 210, down 20 pounds from where he was two years ago when everyone told him he needed to bulk up and hit with power to make it as a third baseman. He's taking care of his nutrition and feeling great. McCann, his best friend and workout partner, tells him he now "looks like a cross country runner." That's over doing it, but the point is spot on.
On the other hand, McCann is about 20 pounds heavier than he was at the end of the season, his attempt to make it through the long grind of a summer catching. He looks great, too.
Cox thinks he had a solid season last year in Triple A, staying over .280 for most of the season. Playing in the steamy conditions in New Orleans is not great for a hitter, but he did fine. He said you cannot drink enough water daily to keep your body hydrated.
The great news on Cox is that he's about over the effects of a concussion that ruined his eyesight for the better part of two seasons.
"I went to a specialist in Pittsburgh last year and he told me that my eyes did not converge on the target because of the effects of the blow," Cox said. "He gave me training drills and my vision is much better. He said many players don't come back from concussions for that very reason. I think my vision is still getting better and I look forward to this season.
"I can see the ball at the release point again. I didn't realize I couldn't see it for awhile. But now I know what was happening. Obviously, for a hitter, your vision is about the most important thing."
McCann, with the Tigers, talked about the thrill of finishing the season in the big leagues, the wonderful feeling of being in a race and the excitement of catching a great like Justin Verlander.
"I had studied the way he pitched on video and gone over everything," he said. "I wanted to know exactly how he worked and be ready. I thought it went well. After a couple of innings, he went to Brad Ausmus (the Detroit manager) and told him, 'This kid is ready.' That made me feel good.
"Someone told me years ago that the catching aspect of working with the great pitchers is easy. And they were right. You see the way they work, it's going to be easy to catch them. They are going to hit their spots. You give them the target, in or out, they hit it. They are in that location every time. It's fun, like being in a rocking chair.
"My job is to make everything easy for them, take care of them. You make sure all things around them are going well. If I can do that, we are going to have good results."
Cox, with the Marlins, appears headed for Triple A again. McCann is battling for a spot in Detroit in spring training. McCann leaves for work with the pitchers and catchers in two weeks. Both have homes in the Fayetteville area and work out daily at the Fowler Indoor Baseball and Track Training Facility.
Killian Starting Slow, Eagan Injured
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