Gimme 5:

What to Watch Opening Weekend

By: Matt Jones
Published: Friday, February 14, 2014
Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn talks with the umpires before the start of the is season opener against Appalachian State Friday afternoon at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn talks with the umpires before the start of the is season opener against Appalachian State Friday afternoon at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

— Arkansas opens the 2014 season Friday at Baum Stadium.

The Razorbacks are ranked No. 25 in the Baseball America preseason poll, but still picked to finish fifth in the SEC West by league coaches. The program is looking to make an NCAA regional for the 13th consecutive season.

Here are five things to watch as Arkansas takes the field against Appalachian State this weekend.

Pitching

Arkansas recorded the lowest earned run average in school history last year and the lowest in NCAA baseball since 1976, but most of those arms are gone.

The Razorbacks must replace 80 percent of their starts, 69 percent of their innings pitched and 59 percent of their wins on the mound from a year ago. Arkansas must also find replacements for a trio of multi-year weekend starters.

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Juniors Jalen Beeks and Chris Oliver, and freshman Alex Phillips will start on the mound this weekend, but don't expect that to be the rotation all year. Beeks and Oliver were used primarily out of the bullpen last season and one, if not both, will likely return there by the time conference play begins next month.

Phillips has earned high praise from the coaching staff in the preseason. The right-hander doesn't wow the radar gun, but his off-speed pitches have been tough to hit.

Arkansas' starters will be on pitch counts of 80 to 85 this weekend and could be pulled before that.

Sophomore Trey Killian, who actually started the Razorbacks' conference opener last season, won't pitch the first two weekends because of an NCAA infraction. Killian worked on a slider in the off-season to complement his fastball and could be the Razorbacks' Friday night starter by the end of the year.

Also watch for sophomore left-hander Colin Poche to get some limited work this weekend. Poche, another pitcher coaches hope to work into a starting role either on the weekend or in the midweek, has dealt with arm soreness in the preseason.

A pair of new pitchers, freshman Dominic Taccolini and junior college transfer Jacob Stone, could also get work this weekend out of the bullpen.

Lead-Off

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn believes he has a true lead-off hitter for the first time since his team went to the College World Series in 2009.

Andrew Benintendi was the Rawlings national player of the year in high school and can handle the bat well. The Razorbacks' projected starting center fielder hit above .500 every year in high school and set the Ohio career record for runs scored and finished second in career hits.

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Andrew Benintendi was one of the nation's top hitters in high school. + Enlarge

Benintendi doesn't possess an abundance of power or speed, but is a smart player. As a high school senior he stole 38 bases in 30 baseball games. He also averaged 25.5 points per game on the basketball court, earning division player of the year honors.

If Benintendi can get on base, Arkansas should be able to manufacture some runs. Batting directly behind him will likely be a trio of third-year players - Joe Serrano, Brian Anderson and Tyler Spoon, the team's three leading hitters a year ago.

Benintendi should also get some RBI opportunities. Van Horn said shortstop Brett McAfee has made great strides with the bat since last year and could be used at the bottom of the order.

Wise play

Catcher Jake Wise had a tough off-season but should be ready to play in the opening series.

The senior had Tommy John surgery last summer to repair a torn ligament in his throwing elbow. He then had to have double-hernia surgery in December.

Wise's elbow is fine. Van Horn said Wise's arm strength is improving and his release seems quicker than ever.

Still recovering from the hernia surgery, Wise is struggling some with his sprinting. Van Horn said the catcher might "cruise" a little more on a ball hit into the gap early in the season.

The coach expects Wise to be better offensively than he was during a junior campaign in which he batted .212. The elbow surgery might have shortened Wise's swing some which could help with over-swinging, Van Horn said.

Blake Baxendale is expected to back-up Wise behind the plate. Van Horn said Baxendale's defense has improved but he has struggled hitting since coming to campus prior to last season.

Hot corner

Who will play third base?

That's the question that perplexes coaches most as the season begins. The odds-on favorite to start opening day is Bobby Wernes, a junior college transfer. But he might not be the only player who gets a look there.

Junior coll├Ęge transfer Michael Bernal and freshman Clark Eagan have also gotten looks at third base. Van Horn said Bernal has hit well during the preseason but has been inconsistent defensively.

Third base was a revolving door for the Razorbacks last year. Brian Anderson, now the team's second baseman, started at third the first half of last season but struggled with throwing errors. Anderson gave way to senior Jacob Mahan at the position late in the year.

Approach

Arkansas hired a new hitting coach last summer.

Tony Vitello replaced Todd Butler, who spent eight seasons with the Razorbacks before accepting the head coaching job at Wichita State. Vitello spent the three previous seasons at TCU and the 34-year-old is known as an ace recruiter, but his work with hitters will be what gets him noticed most.

Arkansas' struggles at the plate since the new BBCOR bats were introduced to the college game have been well documented. Van Horn said it was a point of conversation when the two met about the job opening last year.

Like many preseasons, players have said the hitting will improve. One thing players have noticed has been in Vitello's approach to coaching.

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Tony Vitello is in his first year as Arkansas' hitting coach. + Enlarge

Tyler Spoon said Vitello doesn't try to mold hitters into a prototype, but instead works with the strengths in swings that got the players to the college game. The coach has also made himself accessible to his hitters, often the first one to arrive and the last to leave the stadium.

Expect Arkansas' numbers to improve over last season when the Razorbacks scored three or fewer runs in 38 of 61 games. Six position players who started last year's NCAA regional return, of which four are in at least their third year with the program.

Experience often proves to be the best teacher.

The Razorbacks will get to test their offense in Friday's opener. Appalachian State returns its top pitcher from last season, right-hander Jamie Nunn. The junior had a 3.46 ERA last year and struck out 77 batters in 97 2/3 innings.

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