Diamond Hogs Defense Deep, Experienced

FAYETTEVILLE -- Listing the combinations of personnel that Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn can and likely will use on defense could fill up an entire page.

The third-year Hogs' baseball coach has so much depth, he needed a cheat sheet during Tuesday's preseason media day.

"I just don't want to forget anybody," Van Horn said. "That's the luxury of this year's team is we have a little more depth."

The Razorbacks open the season at 3 p.m. on Friday at Dallas Baptist. They'll play four games this weekend in a round robin against Dallas Baptist and Texas-Arlington, with the last three being played at UTA's Clay Gould Park.

This year's squad features a balanced group of seniors and talented newcomers.

"I want to play the older guys early," Van Horn said. "Let the younger guys relax a little bit and see how it all goes. You just don't want to throw them out there on the road to start out with four freshman, or maybe even transfers, in the lineup.

"They're not really ready yet."

A mainstay defensively has been shortstop Scott Hode, a senior with unmatched work ethic and instincts. The past three seasons

"The experience helps," Hode said. "You're more comfortable out there and it's easier just to have fun because you're more confident."

The rest of the infield, at least to start the season, also will be familiar to Razorbacks fans as steady senior Clay Goodwin returns at third, speedy senior Scott Bridges is back at second base and sophomore Danny Hamblin is at first base.

Goodwin was red-hot offensively and defensively before breaking a hamate bone in his right hand. Although he missed 10 games, Goodwin led the team with a .319 batting average.

Bridges, who Van Horn said has looked like a "man on a mission" this season, will start the season at second base, but can play any position. He's just as seasoned as Hode, starting 120 games in his three-year career.

"We have a couple of new guys in here and we (the seniors) are trying to set a pace for them and be a leader for them," Bridges said. "Defense, that's going to be one of our strong points since we've pretty much got everybody back from last year."

Hamblin is coming off surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder after injuring it three games into last season. He still made quite an impact as the team's designated hitter with a .304 average and eight home runs.

"We want to have our best defense out there and Danny is our best first baseman," Van Horn said.

Healing has been slow, but Hamblin has been able to throw more and more as spring practices have progressed.

Catching duties belong to freshman Brian Walker, a transfer from Arizona State who's originally from Tulsa.

Expect Arkansas' outfield to continue making tough plays look easy again this season whether it's senior Casey Rowlett making over-the-shoulder catches in center field or sophomore Jake Dugger diving to snare a line drive in the gap.

They practice making the tough catches. In one pregame drill, Arkansas assistant Matt Deggs tosses up a ball as an outfielder slides on his stomach to make the grab as the ball comes down.

"Our outfielders can really cover some ground and have good instincts," Deggs said. "That drill is similar to something you might do in a pregame football drill or something, just to kind of get you mentally ready to play."

The players agree, saying the full-speed belly flop kind of triggers their intensity before each game. It was started by former Razorback player and current graduate assistant Bubbs Merrill, who basically improvised the drill while running off the field during pregame warm-ups before a game last season.

"It's about getting dirty and really just to get your mind right," said Dugger, who was an all-state tailback in Omaha, Neb. "We take a lot of pride in it because we strive to be the best outfield in the nation."

Dugger may start the season in left, but has been in right field often this spring as coaches explore different combinations. When Dugger's in right, freshman Clint Arnold or junior Chris Hollensworth has been in left field.

Rowlett is expected to start the season in center, but the coaches are trying to groom sophomore Stephen Robison for that position as well.

"The coaches can work different lineups in the outfield because everybody is just as good as the next guy," Rowlett said. "We've got five or six guys in the outfield that are all about the same speed and all get good jumps on the ball, so the options we have should make us a lot better."

Robison broke his wrist during summer ball and missed most of the fall. He was on the road to complete recovery before apparently reinjuring the wrist during practice. He has an MRI scheduled for today which will reveal the extent of his injury.

"With Casey leaving next year, we're going to have to get (Robison) some experience," Deggs said. "He's the fastest guy on the team, one of the best we have all-around and he's going to make plays."

Junior college transfer Craig Gentry has shown plenty of promise as a center fielder, but coaches say he needs to improve offensively.

"Gentry is a guy that has a lot of tools, but we don't know how much the bat is going to play right now," Deggs said. "He's a guy that you hope for everyday because he's the best athlete we've got."

Overall, the defense has plenty of speed, depth and experience and should be key in helping ease the transition of breaking in an untested pitching staff.

"The defense will help the pitching along," Van Horn said. "We've told the pitchers in some of these early scrimmages that are going 6 to 7 pitches a batter, just throw the ball over the plate and let them hit it.

"We've got a very fast defense out there and we've got good infielders, just throw strike one and we're going to be fine."

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