Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: Baseball Clicking on Almost All Cylinders in 8-0 Start

Solid defense, plenty of power and a deep pitching staff has led the Arkansas baseball team to an 8-0 start. The Razorbacks swept three games from Rice, Houston and Texas Tech over the weekend in Houston.

It's hard to be anything but impressed after the No. 22 Arkansas baseball team opened the season with an 8-0 February. Perhaps the two early opponents were not anything to brag about, but sweeping Rice, Houston and Texas Tech in the Houston Collegiate Classic got my attention this weekend.

Rice and Houston were both ranked and Texas Tech was advertised as a solid team, too. The SEC will be tougher, but the trip to Minute Maid Park is a good measuring stick for these Razorbacks. More was learned than whipping up on Central Michigan and Mississippi Valley State to start the season.

As baseball coach Dave Van Horn said in the Sunday post-game interview after a 10-6 victory over Tech, the Hogs may have "grown up" quite a bit. Rallying from a 5-0 deficit in the first inning was impressive.

To be honest, about the only thing that hasn't been impressive has been Keaton McKinney. The sophomore righthander was projected as the Friday night starter just three weeks ago, but he's struggled in his first two outings, both on Sunday. He opened the season as the third starter because he was still behind in bullpen work after summer hip surgery.

Van Horn was hopeful at the season's outset that McKinney would work his way to a Saturday spot, then Friday before the SEC season opened. That doesn't look so probable after McKinney didn't make it out of the first inning on Sunday and now has a 13.50 ERA in his two starts. He's not been able to locate his fast ball and that's meant constant trouble.

About the only other thing that's not gone as good as planned has been Chad Spanberger's rib injury. It just hasn't healed enough for the big slugger to get in the lineup. Soft tissue injuries in the rib cage can be slow to heal and Van Horn is being careful with the big bopper who inspired administrators to cover the new scoreboard with a net because he was breaking lights in batting practice.

The interesting thing about the Hogs' power, there has been no shortage without Spanberger, projected as the starter in right field. The Hogs have smashed 12 homers through eight games. They had eight at this time last year -- with Andrew Benintendi, Tyler Spoon and Joe Serrano.

Shortstop Michael Bernal leads the Hogs with four homers, batting from the eighth spot in the lineup. That's the position Van Horn would like to keep his new power source.

"I always think it's best to have someone with some power at the bottom end of the lineup," Van Horn said just before the season opener in predicting his batting order. "Michael is probably going to bat down in the lineup but he's got more pop. He can turn on something middle of the plate and in and send it a long way."

Bernal has done that. And, he's been the anchor of a solid defense. Arkansas led the SEC in double plays last year with Bernal and Rick Nomura returning from that middle infield combination.

Arkansas is fielding a spectacular .991 through eight games. There have been only three errors, one of them by McKinney fielding a bunt. Bernal and first baseman Cullen Gassaway have the other two.

Gassaway has been spectacular at first base. He's been good at coming off the bag to make the tag when his infielders have given him wide throws and he's gobbled up grounders. He has made some nice plays going back, too.

Just to compare defense, opponents have made 18 errors. This appears to be one of Van Horn's better fielding teams and there is plenty of depth.

The Hogs are hitting .348 through eight games. UA pitching is holding the opposition to .217 hitting. And, there appears to be lots of depth on the pitching staff. Van Horn has used 17 pitchers in the eight games. Van Horn has used 15 at least twice. All but McKinney have been effective.

The Hogs did not have to use Zach Jackson but once on the weekend because of the wonderful combination of offense, defense and pitching depth. Jackson got a solid three-inning close on Friday. He was up in the bullpen at the end of the Sunday game, but lefty Jordan Rodriguez got the final four outs with Tech's lineup full of lefty hitters.

The newcomer out of the bullpen with the most interesting story might be senior transfer Doug Willey. Nicknamed grandpa by teammates, Willey has pitched in four games for 4.1 innings. He's struck out seven of the 14 batters faced. Opponents are hitting 0.71 against Willey.

Willey graduated from Division II Franklin Pierce last season with one year of eligibility left. He was playing in the Cape Cod League last summer and expressed to Luke Bonfield that he would like to try the SEC. Van Horn said he's been such a great presence in the locker room that he's likely to offer him a coaching position next season.

Willey doesn't have an overpowering fast ball, but he's great at locating on the inner half with movement and has a sweeping curve that ends up just off the plate that has proven to be almost untouchable.

There are other newcomers who have impressed. Freshman Eric Cole, playing right field, cooled a bit in Houston, but still has a .469 on base percentage. Juco transfer Jake Arledge is hitting .545 in limited action. Of the usual starters, Carson Shaddy leads at .467.

James Teague, junior righthander, appears to be solid after sitting out the first weekend with a sore arm. He's pitched twice, recording seven strikeouts in three innings. He appears to have more velocity than last season.

Van Horn would like to keep Teague in the bullpen, but if McKinney continues to struggle with his command, that could change. Teague has been a reliable starter in the past, but seems to thrive in the bullpen.

All in all, there's a lot of good happening for the Diamond Hogs. They'll host four games this week, starting with Louisiana Tech at 3:05 p.m. Wednesday. Eastern Illinois is the opponent this weekend. Starts at set for 3 p.m. Friday, noon on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

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