Things continue to fall in place for the Arkansas baseball team. Head coach Dave Van Horn painted an optimistic picture for the Razorbacks at Monday's Swatter Club after his team won its seconds straight SEC series over the weekend.
Van Horn was presented the game ball from Sunday's 6-4 victory over Auburn, his 500th at the Arkansas helm in a ceremony at the start of the Swatter's Club. Former head coach Norm DeBriyn was part of the ceremony. Combined, Van Horn and DeBriyn have won 1,161 games at Arkansas.
DeBriyn said he's lucky that things have worked out with Van Horn at Arkansas because there was a time when he thought his failure to offer him a scholarship as a high school player put the Hogs behind the eight ball.
"We were fortunate he was a player here because I almost screwed that up," DeBriyn said. "Look what he's done with our program. There was a time when I was the coach when we were lucky to get 25 or 26 at a game. Now look. Our crowds are in the thousands."
Van Horn went to junior college, then picked the Hogs above an offer from Texas A&M when DeBriyn came courting again.
The Razorbacks (16-15) improved to 5-7 in the SEC with two wins at Auburn. They have won four out of six after starting the season at 1-5 with series against Vanderbilt and LSU, both ranked No. 1 at points this season.
Arkansas will play seven straight at home beginning with two against Mississippi Valley on Tuesday and Wednesday. Game time Tuesday night is 6:30 p.m. The start time for Wednesday is 3:05 p.m. Kentucky comes to Baum Stadium on Friday through Sunday.
"It's good to be at home," Van Horn said. "We have a couple of games in midweek to mix our lineup up. It would be nice to get on a roll. We haven't gotten on a roll this year."
Early, the problem was the bullpen. That's steadied somewhat, but Van Horn is still hopeful that closer Jacob Stone can find his release point. He struggled in the lone loss this weekend, hitting two batters and walking another. He's 1-2 with a 4.30 ERA.
"We are studying tape to find out for sure, but we think he's too low on his arm slot," Van Horn said. "We think he's dropped down. The release point is not right."
Van Horn said he does not think the new low seamed baseball is the problem.
"I think the baseball is fine," he said. "I don't think any of the pitchers mind the ball. It's a good baseball."
Stone was behind on his work after the holidays and a catch-up schedule produced a sore arm. Things just haven't been the same since.
"He's going to get extended work this week," Van Horn said. "I think a lot of things are falling in place and he might be the last piece. We need him and he wants it. I think he might be pressing a little."
The Hogs are getting solid pitching now, something that wasn't happening earlier in the year. Trey Killian, Zach Jackson, Dominic Taccolini, James Teague, Jackson Lowery, Josh Alberius and Keaton McKinney all pitched with good results against Auburn.
Jackson pitched twice, getting a victory and a save. He has been almost untouchable this season. Opposing batters are hitting just .198 against him and that's the low mark on the team. He's got 43 strikeouts in 30 innings. But he has given up 26 walks.
Van Horn was stunned when he found out Jackson threw 52 pitches in one inning against Auburn before he found the strike zone. He had not planned to pitch him on Sunday but pitching coach Dave Jorn had other plans.
"He'd thrown 72 pitches so we were going to shut him down," Van Horn said. "He wasn't on the board. Then, in the ninth, Coach Jorn said we might bring him back. I didn't even know it, but he already had sent him down to the bullpen. He said, 'Coach, he's already up.' I wasn't going to argue at that point."
Jackson has not been a surprise. He was slated to be in the starting rotation, but his value has been pitching twice on the weekend out of the bullpen.
Third baseman Bobby Wernes and centerfielder Andrew Benintendi might be the two most valuable players among the position lineup. Wernes is hitting .349, Benintendi .336. Wernes has been stellar fielding his position, too.
"Bobby has probably been our most improved player," Van Horn said. "He's played great at third and he's hitting,too.
"Benintendi has made a huge improvement. We were worried about him making it to school out of high school. But he struggled at times. He'd never failed in his life, but he did last year. So he went home and lifted, got stronger. He's having a great year."
Benintendi shares the SEC lead in home runs with nine. He's also been successful on 12 of 14 stolen base attempts to lead the team in that category.
Van Horn revealed before Swatter's Club that Benintendi's play has major league scouts drooling. The sophomore is draft eligible since his 21st birthday comes this summer, inside the draft line.
"He could be a first rounder," Van Horn said. "They love him, love his power and his athletic ability. He's going to have to turn down a lot of money to come back after this year. I would tell our fans to come see him now because I don't know if he'll be back."
Van Horn said infielder Max Hogan will not play the rest of the season. Hogan has been bothered by a concussion, something that was a problem for him a few years ago in high school football.
"He didn't tell us about the first one until recently," Van Horn said. "He's having trouble seeing the ball. So we shut him down. We'll get a medical hardship for him."
Hogan has played in 14 games, batting .091. He got hit by a pitch two days before the season opener in a scrimmage game.
"I think Max would have been in our lineup," Van Horn said. "He's a lefty with a flat swing. I'm not sure where we would have played him, but it was going to be some where -- second, third, outfield or designated hitter. He was going to make it hard for me to fill out a lineup."
Van Horn also said freshman outfielder Blake Wiggins has been shut down for the year, too. Wiggins played in three games before problems with a stress fracture reduced his practice time.
"Doctors wanted him to practice in a boot," Van Horn said. "It just wasn't really something you could do. So he'll get a hardship at some point, too."
Van Horn said freshman lefty hitter Chad Spanberger is "starting to figure it out." Spanberger is batting just .261 and has not hit a homer despite showing big power in fall ball.
"In batting practice, he puts on a show," Van Horn said. "He hit it hard three times this weekend but had nothing to show for it. But I see it. He was not coming close on the low slider, but he is starting to figure it out. He flicked the bat at one this weekend and got a piece of it. It's like he said, 'I'm not going to let you do that anymore.'
"He is strong, is smart and is a good player. He's coming. He hits them in batting practice so far. He's going to do that in a game soon. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a walk-off for us soon."
Van Horn said he was unsure of the starting pitcher for Tuesday's date with Mississippi Valley.
"We may not tell them until tomorrow," he said. "We've been like that lately. We don't tell them until they come to the ballpark.
"The problem is that we've had a hard time finding a third starter. So if you don't have a third, it's hard to name a fourth or a fifth for the mid-week games. We are pitching better. We have some young guys who are figuring it out."