Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas-Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
Diamond Hogs looking for energy in lineup
Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler (near) watches from the dugout during the Razorbacks' 3-1 loss to Arizona State on Saturday, March 1 in Surprise, Ariz.
FAYETTEVILLE Junior Barrett Astin will take the mound Friday night for Arkansas' series opener at No. 6 South Carolina, but there could be more changes than just the Razorbacks' starting Friday night pitcher.
Arkansas assistant coach Todd Butler said there could be changes to the lineup and defensive alignment for the Razorbacks' first conference road trip of the year. A lack of runs and an abundance of errors have cost Arkansas in the majority of its losses this season, including a 6-4 loss to Ole Miss in 13 innings Sunday.
"That's something we're having to place our mind around right now as coaches is we must play better defense," Butler said. "We all know our pitching is as good as anyone in the country and we have many weapons coming out of the bullpen."
The Razorbacks have committed 33 errors through their first 21 games, including 20 in their seven losses. Butler, speaking in place of head coach Dave Van Horn who was out of town, said he would prefer Van Horn comment on lineup changes, but did offer a glimpse at who was working where this week in practice.
Referencing bunt defense, he said Willie Schwanke has worked at first base this week and Brian Anderson at shortstop. Anderson, who has started most games this season at third base, played shortstop in the late innings of the Ole Miss loss.
"He made some nice plays when we pinch-hit for (starting shortstop Brett) McAfee with the bases loaded," Butler said. "Both of them are very talented, but I keep going back to that energy, that toughness and make-up type of player. We need guys in that infield who are into the game."
Butler said Jacob Mahan, who has played some third base this season, could replace Anderson there if a move is made, noting he has better range at third base than at second. Coaches anticipate Dominic Ficociello to play at South Carolina despite an oblique strain that has kept him out of 16 games because the switch-hitter has been unable to bat from the left side.
"His joy for competing and the energy he brings to the dugout, we've really been missing that," Butler said. "I'm not talking about production or how many hits he has, or RBIs, but his energy he brings to the game, we've missed him.
"We need him in the lineup this weekend, so if that means he has to bat right-on-right, so be it. If we cannot let him hit from the left side because it bothers him, then we'll just let him hit right-on-right and right-on-left, but hopefully we'll see him in the lineup this weekend."
With no games in the midweek, Arkansas has been afforded more practice time this week. Butler said the team has worked extensively on situational hitting after striking out 11 times in the series finale against the Rebels.
"We had a good practice yesterday," Butler said. "We put them in situations - 0-2 count, 1-1 sitting on certain pitches and they did a good job. I think any time you can put the hitters in position that is game-like, that's the way you're going to improve.
"We need to be more consistent. I think guys have done a good job of putting the bat on the ball. I was a little disappointed in Sunday, but they are making adjustments. But we can't just sit back and and think we're going to get three or four hits in a row because no one is doing that. You saw Saturday, we played Arkansas baseball - we safety squeezed, stole bases, hit-and-ran. Then Sunday we have bases loaded with nobody out and take a 2-1 fastball. I feel offensively it's like a boxing match, whoever has more swings at the plate will be more successful, just like boxing whoever has more punches wins. On Saturday, we and more swings at the plate than Ole Miss and we won the game. The goal right now is to be more aggressive."
Astin, who has a 1.10 earned run average this season, is Arkansas' fourth different pitcher to begin a series in as many weeks and third different in the last three Friday nights. Junior right-hander Ryne Stanek will start Saturday and senior left-hander Randall Fant, who had surgery to remove his wisdom teeth earlier this week, will pitch Sunday.
Butler said the plan is to move Stanek back to Friday nights after he pitched Sunday against Ole Miss, but it won't happen this week because it wouldn't allow him enough time to rest between starts. Trey Killian, who started last Friday, will move to the bullpen for the series against the Gamecocks.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he came back out to start later in the year, maybe an SEC weekend," Butler said. "He's done everything asked of him. He's been fantastic, but we're just going to go with a more experienced guy on Friday."
TV Games Added
Four additional road games have been added to the Razorbacks' TV schedule, bringing the number to 22 this season.
Arkansas' April 16 game at Nebraska will be televised by the Big Ten Network, April 26 game at Georgia by Comcast Sports, and May 3 and 4 games at Kentucky by Fox Sports South.