Rick Nomura was at some apartments just north of Baum Stadium a few nights ago when he walked outside to see an incredible sight.
"They were playing with the new scoreboard, working on some video to be shown at the Red Tie Dinner of Andrew Benintendi," Nomura said. "It was just incredible, awesome. It's like nothing you've ever seen. It was some Golden Spikes highlights of Benny. I just couldn't believe it. It lit up the entire parking lot between the stadium and the apartments. Really, it lit up the sky."
That's the rage as Arkansas opened baseball practice Friday afternoon on a bluebird day at Baum Stadium.
"We've seen the scoreboard in action during the day time," Zach Jackson said. "But not at night. I did hear about what Rick is talking about. But I've just seen that same video while we were working a bullpen. It was pretty incredible during the day. But at night, I think it's going to be amazing.
"We had video on our board last year, but it was low def. This is high def and it's massive. It's the biggest scoreboard in college baseball."
It's almost as good as the weather the Hogs had for their first day on Friday. It was nearing 70 degrees as they hit the field. There have been some instructional days with the squad split over the last two weeks, but this is the first day the entire squad can be together for a workout.
"We are excited," Nomura said. "Well, I'm really excited. Just thinking back to last year, we had to shovel snow for two hours to get on the field for the Eastern Illinois game. I'm from Hawaii. I'd never seen snow. It was pretty neat for a little while, but I'd rather have a day like this."
Clark Eagan was excited, too. Mainly, he was just pumped to be healthy for the start of a season. He battled an issue with his left shoulder the last two sasons. It was repaired last summer. He's full go.
"We have had some surgeries," Eagan said. "But we are all healthy. Carson Shaddy's arm is fixed. He's throwing great. Our pitchers are all healthy."
Shaddy had Tommy John surgery and is going full blast at third base. Pitchers Dominic Taccolini, Keaton McKinney and James Teague have all recovered from injuries.
"Keaton is right at 100 percent and Taco and James are 100 percent," Jackson said. "It's great to see. Our team is healthy."
The Hogs are ranked near the bottom of most preseason polls, anywhere from 21st to 25th. But they aren't paying those any mind. They say the goal at Arkansas is the College World Series and Omaha, where they ended last season.
"We are capable of doing it again," Jackson said. "Expectations are always high here. We know what we have in this locker room.
"Our goals don't change. We've got some holes to fill, but we've got a lot of experience."
"The expectations are that we will end up in Omaha," Nomura said. "We have a great mesh on this team as far as chemistry. Chemistry is good. You need that because there can be rough patches. You need leaders and the ability to weather the rough patches. We have it. Omaha is very attainable, but we will have to grind. We are ready to do that, grind."
Nomura said it won't be enough just to make it to the CWS.
"But we don't want to just go to Omaha," he said. "We did that. We want to win the whole thing. I'm pumped.
"Hey, what a day it is today. I feel like I'm in Hawaii."
Van Horn likes the prospects for the season. He's especially excited about the health of his pitching staff. McKinney is listed at just under 100 percent, Van Horn said. But the sophomore pitcher is excited about where he is after summer hip surgery.
“I feel great,” said McKinney, the SEC’s only freshman to throw two complete games last year. “I’m stronger. There was a time in the summer when I could only lift with the upper body and I got a lot stronger. I think my velocity will be up as the season rolls along.
“I don’t know that my weight is that much higher, but I got rid of bad weight and added good weight.”
There is a more confidence in a third pitch, too. He’s always had the ability to spot both his fast ball and change-up, his out pitch. He experimented with a slider and a curve late last year but didn’t use either much in games.
“You don’t want to try a new pitch late in the year,” he said. “I think I will have at least three now. That’s so much better. Before hitters could guess and they had a 50-50 chance. Not now.
“The main thing, I feel great. I was unable to push off my back leg last year as the season went along. I’m healthy and strong now. I was throwing that change a lot at the end of the year because it was the pitch that produced the least stress.
“I just fought through the pain at Omaha. I just wanted to pitch and worked through it. It got too much by the fifth inning.”
There is much excitement over the freshman pitching class. Springdale Har-Ber lefty Weston Rogers has shown great ability to throw strikes and has good stuff. Ty Harris, Anthony Dahl, Isaiah Campbell, Kacey Murphy and Barrett Loseke. There are three lefties in that group. Junior college transfer Hunter Hart has also been impressive. Doug Willey, senior transfer doing post-graduate work, has also shown consistent command of the strike zone.
“We feel good about the freshmen and the new guys,” Van Horn said. “Rogers has thrown a lot of strikes and has a lot of composure. He has three pitches.
“We have a lot of good arms, but a lot of inexperience. They’ve been pretty good with no one in the seats. When you play games and people are there, sometimes it makes a difference. We’ll see.”
They’ll see early. While McKinney, Teague and Taccolini are healthy, they’ll have to build up their pitch counts after being on the shelf for so long. None pitched in the summer or fall.
“We are going to be smart with those three and bring them along,” Van Horn said. “Normally, they’d be the guys to eat up some innings. It’s probably a blessing in disguise because we need to look at these younger guys.”
Josh Alberius was solid out of the bullpen last year. He’ll burn up some middle innings. Sophomore Cannon Chadwick, wild last year, is much improved.
“Cannon did in the fall what he did in junior college,” Van Horn said. “He could be a back of the bullpen guy and gives us more freedom.”
There is the thought that it won’t be like last year when some youngsters got looks, but couldn’t throw strikes, producing long games. There were lots of walks, plenty of wild pitches and frustration for a coaching staff that has always produced strike throwers.
Pitching coach Dave Jorn doesn’t see that now. He said the fall results were good. He generally lets newcomers strut their stuff early and waits until after the intra squad games to make changes in the late fall.
“It really wasn’t a lot, but they all were receptive,” Jorn said. “They were willing. I just don’t like to confuse them when they first get here.
“The main thing I try to help them with is rhythm and extension. They were open to instruction.”
Van Horn called the team “a work in progress,” but possesses a lot of depth and will be an exciting team to watch. The team is healthy after entering last season with several key injuries.
Sophomore outfielder Luke Bonfield is a different player and now “a decent defensive player,” Van Horn said. He’s a much more confident hitter and is just vastly different than the player who battled back from a broken ankle last season. He hit just .177 last year, but was solid in the fall.
Eagan (.288) has a repaired shoulder that bothered him the last two seasons. He had it fixed last summer. He’s going to be a versatile player this year, perhaps playing outfield, third base as well as first base, his position last year. His ability to move to another position might get Cullen Gassaway (.283) on the field at first. Gassaway is physically stronger and in better shape and could have an exciting season.
Sophomore Carson Shaddy (.337) has a chance to play several positions. After Tommy John surgery last summer, he’s poised for a big year. He could always hit, but his poor throwing made it tough to keep him in the lineup. He’ll play third, outfield and can also serve as a reserve catcher. Van Horn said his throwing is improved enough that he could ultimately play shortstop down the line. Shaddy apparently played with a torn tendon for close to three seasons.
Sophomore Chad Spanberger (.252) has improved his outfield play and looks like the probable starter in right field. The power laden lefty did not hit a home run last season, but bounced several off the scoreboard this fall. Van Horn said one just to the right of the scoreboard had height and distance to clear everything.
Others who will play in the outfield are Eric Cole, Jake Arledge, Austin Catron and Darien Sims. Cole and Sims are flyers and Arledge can steal bases, too.
“We’ll see who can hit,” Van Horn said. “We’ve got more options and may platoon some in the outfield.”
Cole dazzled in the fall, hitting .350.
“He can really run, but he’s still learning to run the bases,” Van Horn said. “But he can hit. I don’t remember too many true freshmen hitting like that in the fall. He can really put the barrel on the ball and knows the strike zone.”
Michael Bernal (.269) and Nomura (.298) return at the middle infield and could be one of the SEC’s best double play combinations. Freshman Cody Scroggins and Shaddy provide depth there.
Catching looks solid. Tucker Pennell (.200) finally turned the corner at the plate late last season. He hit .300 the last 20 games with lots of line drives. Alex Gosser (.240) has returned this year in the best shape of his college career and looks to be more polished behind the plate and a tougher out. Freshman Grant Koch has turned heads, too, and will get time. He shows a real ability to hit and moves around behind the plate.
There were issues with both Virginia and Miami running on Pennell at the College World Series. He said that was not Pennell’s fault. “We had some issues with (pitchers) being slow to the plate and we knew it,” Van Horn said. “We have gotten that corrected.”
Arkansas will be at the tail end of the preseason rankings. D1Baseball.com has the Hogs No. 25. Everyone knows the Hogs have solid talent and there is great respect for Van Horn and his staff. But the fact they lost Andrew Benintendi, Joe Serrano and Tyler Spoon from the outfield and the worries about the health of front-line pitchers Teague, McKinney and Taccolini leads for caution among the national experts.
“I understand that,” Van Horn said. “What gets you ranked in the top 10 in preseason is when you return your weekend rotation. If you have three great starters, the pollsters and national websites like you. I think that’s what will be the case next year.”
Will Jackson be a starter or a closer? He could be both.
“Just don’t pencil him in as a starter yet,” Van Horn said. “He could be our wild card. We might close with him early on the weekend and if he hasn’t burned many innings, we could start him on Sunday, the same way we used Jay Sawatski here my first year.”
There will not be team captains, at least for the early part of the season. Van Horn didn’t have captains last year and liked the results. He said there are captains and leaders on the team in many areas, including some who are very young. Redshirt freshman outfielder Jack Benninghoff is a clear leader. Benninghoff traveled with the team last year as a redshirt and kept charts for pitchers and in other areas.
“He was an asset to our team in a redshirt year,” Van Horn said. “He brings it every day.”
Obviously, Jackson is a leader.
“We could put a C on his jersey, but he doesn’t need it,” Van Horn said. “He’s not afraid to say something or hold someone accountable. He’s a very good leader and we’ve got quite a few others. I’ve just found that sometimes putting a C on the jersey changes them and it might put pressure on them to do too much. We may name captains at some point in the season, but I liked the way it went last year.
“I think there are a lot of players on this team who are going to lead, quite a few actually. I don’t see a need in naming captains because I want them all to lead.”
Jackson knows his job is to lead, with or without captain status.
“I’m a three-year guy, one of the few,” Jackson said. “So it’s my job to say something to the young guys if it’s needed.”
Jackson, who toured with Team USA last summer, said the Hogs are talented.
“I know we are going to be good,” he said. “We lost the outfield, but we’ve got good players coming back in those three spots. It’s six guys and I couldn’t tell you our opening day lineup right now. But we know we have talent.”
Jorn said McKinney looks great after getting his hip injury fixed in the summer.
“He’s worked hard in the weight room and looks much stronger,” Jorn said. “He didn’t have the velocity last season that we saw in high school. We think that will return this year. He’s so much stronger.
“We think he’ll be in the 91-92 range this year. He still has that great change-up and the ability to command it anytime in any situation. He’s working on that third pitch, a curve. With a little more velocity on his fast ball and his curve, that is going to make that change even better.”