Baseball in the Southeastern Conference -- especially the Western Division -- is loaded again. Where Arkansas, ranked in the top 25 in only one of the six national polls, fits in its tough conference is anyone's guess.
"I think we are viewed as a mystery by others," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "People don't know about us and we really don't know about ourselves just yet.
"But I can tell you that every now and then we really light it up (at the plate) and our pitchers throw strikes. We've got some experience now and that's something you just can't buy.
"Our locker room is good. The chemistry is good. We've got guys who want to go to Omaha and in baseball the locker room is huge."
Van Horn and his Razorback baseball team, rated No. 22 by Baseball America, met with the media on a rainy Wednesday at Baum Stadium. All were excited about a tough schedule that featured nonconference dates with Washington State, Kansas, California, Nebraska, Missouri State, Oral Roberts and Arizona State. All are picked to contend in their conferences.
"I think the rest of the SEC is really pulling for us," Van Horn said. "SEC teams don't play the Pac-10 much and it's a chance to build up some RPI points for our league. We are pulling for South Carolina. They play Clemson and that's a series (Carolina) swept last year to help our conference. So everyone is watching to see what we do against Washington State."
Washington State visits Arkansas for the season opening series, a three-day slate Friday, Feb. 20.
"It's a little harder schedule, but it's definitely something we like," said sophomore Brett Eibner, the starter in center field and also expected to pitch a little more.
"We aren't ranked in many of the polls, but it doesn't matter to us. We just want to go out there, hit and pitch and do what we have the talent to do."
Junior college transfer T. J. Forrest, 6-6 righthander expected to be in the weekend rotation, said it's the kind of games players love.
"I think it's pretty boring to bring in teams that you know you should beat by 10 runs," he said. "You do that, what have you proven. There are going to be a lot of close games with this schedule. You find out something about yourself. You really love this schedule and it's going to give us a chance to really have some fun with a lot of good teams."
The Hogs think they are up to the challenge.
"I think we are improved," fifth year senior captain Ben Tschepikow said. "By far, this is the best offensive team I've been a part of. We are just so very strong at the plate. Every season, we've gotten bigger and stronger. We've got some real power in this lineup. They are hitting it out of the park even when the wind blows in. It doesn't matter."
Two of the bombers are freshman Zack Cox and sophomore Jacob House.
"Cox has really played well since we came back after the holidays," Van Horn said. "He's had a good two weeks. So has House.
"House is so much more powerful. When he's hot, I wouldn't want to pitch to him. If it's a fast ball, he might hit it out to any field. He wasn't dependable last year day in and day out as a freshman. He is now. He's got the prettiest swing you'll see.
"You come out and see him taking BP in the cage and you know baseball, House has one of those swings you stop and watch. It's like a Rafael Palmeiro swing. Just really nice to watch.
"And, he's just bigger and stronger as a sophomore. His power is very noticeable. He hits it out against the wind and he couldn't do that last year."
House grinned about Van Horn's swing comments.
"It's God given, the swing," he said. "I really haven't done much to it. Our hitting coach, Todd Butler, told me that he didn't want to mess with it. We've worked on some things and how to hit the off speed pitch, but we haven't done anything to the swing.
"I feel a lot better this year. We talked before the summer after the season on what I needed to do. I'd played summer ball every year since I was about 8-years-old. I thought and the coaches agreed that what I needed was to get stronger, lift weights and maybe taking the summer off to do that was what I needed most.
"So I'm a lot stronger, more powerful. I think it worked out to be a good thing."
There is more depth in the ‘09 Razorbacks. Van Horn likes that they have some two-way players, mainly Cox and Eibner.
"I think that's a trend in college baseball," Van Horn said. "When you get to the SEC weekends, you have to cut to 25 and having guys who can play a position and pitch, just really gives you more depth.
"Eibner is learning to pitch. Cox already knows how to pitch. Cox can really locate and that's all pitches. Eibner is working hard on his pitching."
Eibner said there was just too much to learn as a true freshman last season to go both ways.
"I was concentrating on being the every day player in center field," Eibner said. "I'm more comfortable now. I can take some time out of the cage to go to the bullpen. I couldn't do that last year. It was just too much.
"I still am trying to learn to locate all my pitches. I can throw as hard as anyone, but at this level, that's not as important as locating for strikes. You have to work both sides and have command of all your pitches. I'm getting better at that."
Van Horn said Eibner's work has been solid in the bullpen so far in February.
"He's been good enough that we are thinking about getting him a start the second series against Kansas," Van Horn said. "We'll see. He's been good so far."
It will likely be lefty junior Dallas Keuchel first on the mound. Arm mechanic changes he made at the start of the summer after he arrived to play int he Cape Cod League have held up.
"He's been good," Van Horn said. "When he's getting his first pitch in for a strike, he can really be tough."
Keuchel said he's pitching at a personal peak.
"It's exciting," Keuchel said. "I'm better. Two years in the Cape Cod League helped me. I went up this summer and fixed some things we had been talking about. My arm and mechanics are better and I'm throwing better than any point in my life."
Van Horn said others projected to contend for starting spots in the pitching rotation are Drew Smyly, Mike Bolsinger and Forrest.
"Bolsinger has been a little sick, but he's good now," Van Horn said. "Seth Gardner, an outfielder, has had strep and mono and may miss a couple of weeks."
Another potential starter down for a bit is juco transfer Bryan Bingham, a strong, 6-6 righthander. Bingham has been battling a sore rib.
Van Horn likes what he sees throughout the lineup and around the diamond as far as defense, too.
"As a coach, one of the things you want to know first, do you have experience at catcher," he said. "With Ryan Cisterna at catcher, we feel very good. And, we have depth there with James McCann and Tom Hauskey.
"Cisterna can handle our pitchers. He knows them. He knows how their fast balls move, how they are going to throw. It makes a difference to you as a coach when you have a guy coming back like Cisterna.
"He's worked hard to get stronger, helped himself at the plate. He hit .237 last year and he will be better than that this year. He broke his hand twice last year and he's just so much stronger right now. I'm not sure he's going to be a .300 hitter, but he might hit .260, .270 and he's going to hit with more power."
Cisterna spent the summer in Fayetteville, then stunned his mother by skipping the trip home to Arizona for Christmas to work with former major leaguer Vance Wilson, a catcher in the Kansas City system who lives in Springdale.
"My mother was crying on the phone a few times when I said I was staying here for Christmas, but there are not many times you get the opportunity to do what I did, work evey day with someone with major league experience," Cisterna said. "He changed my approach to hitting and we did drill after drill on blocking. He helped me a lot.
"I didn't get much for Christmas, just a new phone. My family is coming up for the first series against Washington State (Feb. 21-23) so maybe I'll get something then."
Van Horn thinks the pitching depth will help the back end of the bullpen. Cox and returnee Stephen Richards are expected to close.
"We blew some leads last year," Van Horn said. "I think we are going to be much better there. Richards wasn't able to help us much last year. He'd have a good outing, then he'd be injured. He's much better. He had a little deal at the start of the school, and that seemed to get some things corrected. He's been on a mission since then."
The good news is that there are others Van Horn can count on in the middle.
"I didn't mention Justin Wells as a starter, because we think we are going to be able to use him in the middle," Van Horn said. "He really helped us. I think a key point for him was a game at LSU that we were down 8-1. He came in to relieve and we came back to win it in extra innings. He didn't get a decision, but he didn't care.
"Wells might be our most popular player. He can start, close, pitch in the middle and he could probably play shortstop. He can just play. He's our wild card on the mound."
Wells also is one of the leaders, something Van Horn harps about.
"It's just better," Van Horn said. "We've been all about the team. Our players have embraced that and it starts with our seniors. We've got four or five seniors that are going to probably be in our every-day lineup and that's good."
It's good unless the newcomers continue to beat up on the old guys.
"The last two scrimmages, I've loaded up one team with older guys and the younger ones pounded on them," Van Horn said. "I really like our young ones. They have talent. It tells you we are going to be good in the future, too.
"I'd say that some of the young ones are making it hard on old Coach Van Horn. That's a nice problem. Some of them are going to play."
Freshman Zack Cox will pitch and hit for the Razorbacks.
Jacob House stayed in town during the summer to add some power for his sophomore campaign.
Dave Van Horn visits with the media.
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