Matt Jones has been the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 2010. He is also a feature writer for Hawgs Illustrated magazine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in documentary film.
Razorback Baseball Notebook:
What went wrong?
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn makes a pitching change Tuesday, April 30, 2013, during the fourth inning of play against Missouri State at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE When it was over, Dave Van Horn said there wasn't much he would have done differently in 2013.
Arkansas, a consensus preseason No. 1 team, never lived up to its lofty ranking, finishing the season 39-22 and bowing out in the regional round last weekend. Van Horn, whose team failed to reach 40 wins for the first time in five years, said if he would have done anything differently it would have been in the years leading up to this one.
"I guess hindsight is always 20-20, but maybe I would have changed it back a year-and-a-half ago where I would have recruited another guy or two at a certain position, maybe not put all the scholarship into pitching, tried to get a little more firepower in here," Van Horn said. "Maybe I would have put some freshmen in the lineup a little earlier, but it always takes time to see how they develop.
"The disappointing part is we're not playing because we expect to still be playing."
Arkansas led the NCAA in earned run average throughout the year, recording college baseball's lowest ERA since 1976. But a lack of run support hurt the Razorbacks throughout the season, finishing with a .260 team batting average and scoring two or fewer runs 21 times.
"It's been a real grind with this team just because of the struggle to score runs," Van Horn said. "I think the hitters felt a lot of pressure with such a good pitching staff. We kind of knew it was going to happen. When we lost Matt Reynolds and those two middle infielders last year, we just knew we had to fill some holes. We were hoping a couple of upperclassmen would put it together and have special years.
"Every year you look back and say if we'd have had one more guy here or there it would have been different."
Van Horn credited his longtime pitching coach Dave Jorn for the work he did with the Razorbacks' pitching staff. Arkansas held its opponents to three or fewer runs 38 times and even went 8-13 in games it scored two runs or less.
"If I had a vote I'd vote Coach Jorn pitching coach of the year last year and this year," he said. "You think they're all great pitchers, but he teaches them and develops them. They accepted their role and were really good teammates."
Van Horn said he will watch the MLB Draft closely this week, including some junior college players committed who he wouldn't reveal. Arkansas is expected to lose at least four junior pitchers and junior infielder Dominic Ficociello, and could potentially also lose catcher Jake Wise.
"We're fighting to keep guys so we can put together a team that can battle next year," Van Horn said. "I feel like we'll be picked in the middle of the pack next year because we're losing so many guys. We're trying to plan for it. I'm not big into junior college guys but you've got to do what you've got to do.
"I still expect to get to a regional. I've been to at least the regional round 15 straight years. If I was sitting at home that weekend, I wouldn't know what to do with myself."
Wise status up in the air
Jake Wise will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow suffered during the Razorbacks' trip to the NCAA regional at Kansas State.
Wise injured the elbow in an elimination game against Wichita State last Saturday. He is a projected mid-round pick in this week's MLB Draft but could return to school if the signing bonus isn't high enough, Van Horn said.
"We'll find out probably Saturday on him," Van Horn said. "He didn't have nearly the year he was hoping for and we were hoping for with the bat. He had an incredible year behind the plate, was a great leader and a great defensive player.
"If the organizations know that he's hurt, which I think they would, and they still draft him, then they'll discuss rehab with him. It's going to take a little bit of money, though. He's not going to sign for just a few thousand bucks."
Recovery time for position players after Tommy John surgery is about 6 to 9 months, significantly less than the 12 to 15 months usually required of pitchers following the same operation. That time table would put Wise in the conversation to be the team's starter for the start of the 2014 season, should he come back for his final year of eligibility.
If Wise returns, Van Horn said he expects back-up catcher Jean Ramirez will likely transfer. Ramirez played in 16 games as a redshirt freshman. He started nine times, including the final two games of the regional.
"He's going into his sophomore year and he wants to catch every day," Van Horn said. "I don't blame him. He's a great kid and did everything we asked him to do, but that's kind of TBA right there. We'll see how that goes."
Blake Baxendale, who redshirted after undergoing Tommy John surgery last November, will push for playing time at catcher in 2014. Baxendale, who was the 2012 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette player of the year as a high school senior at Rogers Heritage, won't be able to play summer baseball, Van Horn said, but is making strides in the weight room.
"He's got power, but he's got to continue to get his body in better physical shape," Van Horn said. "When he came in he had a little softness to him as far as physically and I think he's starting to tone that up. He's a big kid. He can DH, he can play first and obviously catch.
"He's really honed his catching skills this year. He's caught in the bullpen and even caught some of our scrimmages where he doesn't throw. He's really gotten better defensively catching it as that arm comes on."
Anderson to the mound
Brian Anderson will pitch some for the Razorbacks next season. Anderson, who led the team with a .325 batting average in 2013, pitched in high school, but hasn't his first two years with the Razorbacks because of arm problems and the lack of need with the team's deep pitching staff.
Van Horn said Anderson can throw in the low-to-mid 90s off the mound and could be used in closing situations.
"Until he hurt his arm, we thought we were kind of getting a two-way guy there, maybe a closer type," Van Horn said. "His freshman year his arm was still recovering and this year it was obviously 100 percent. We talked to him about it off-and-on throughout the season. He came into his meeting (at the end of the year) and he's the one who brought it up, which was great.
"It'll happen a little bit, I think."
Anderson will play this summer in the Cape Cod League as an infielder. He committed a team-high 19 errors this season while playing mostly third base before a mid-season move to the outfield.
Most of Anderson's errors came on throws, which Van Horn said was caused by mechanics coaches didn't notice until his move back to the outfield.
"He was actually throwing the baseball like you'd throw a softball, with three fingers," Van Horn said. "We always thought the ball came out of his hand a little funny and we talked to him about it after he moved to the outfield. He showed us how he gripped the ball and it just floored us; we'd never seen it. Now he's learning to grip the ball with two fingers and a thumb, and ring finger down. He'd just never been through it.
"I really love his development. That's what you want to see in guys. You could see as a freshman he was pretty good and this year he kind of took off and proved he might be the marquee position guy in this program right now, and the guy they're talking about next spring to be a pretty good draft choice."
Anderson could play second base next season for the Razorbacks, Van Horn said, if his fielding improves over the summer, but could also return to left field or center field. Jordan Farris, who started 26 games at second, could move to the left side of the infield and freshman all-American Tyler Spoon could potentially play third base depending on outfield depth.
South Alabama coming to Baum
Arkansas will host South Alabama for a weekend series next season, Van Horn said, with the Razorbacks scheduled to return the trip in 2015.
Schedules are often made two to three years in advance, Van Horn said, so next year's schedule won't reflect changes made to the NCAA's ratings performance index (RPI) prior to the 2013 season. Arkansas is also scheduled to play in an event that includes California, San Francisco and Tulane at AT&T Park in San Francisco and a midweek series against Nebraska next year.
SEC series for the Razorbacks in 2014 include South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M at Baum Stadium, and road series at Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Missouri.