Starting pitchers spook UA coach

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, January 25, 2014
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn works with the Razorbacks during the first practice of the season Friday afternoon at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn works with the Razorbacks during the first practice of the season Friday afternoon at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas’ baseball team opened preseason practice Friday needing to identify its top starting pitchers and to heal its star players in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 14 season opener.

With the temperature hovering around 32 degrees with a wind chill dipping into the mid-20s, the Razorbacks worked out for 90 minutes Friday at Baum Stadium.

“It was about an hour and a half,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. “It’s pretty brutal down here. It’s not bad for the first 15 to 20 minutes. That wind kicking up makes it a little rough to throw, but we got a lot of work in.”

The Razorbacks will hold scrimmages at noon today and Sunday. Temperatures are expected to be much warmer, and both workouts will be open to the public.

“I think that from what I’ve seen the hitters are swinging the bat pretty well for this early in the season,” Van Horn said. “When we play some live pitching tomorrow, it’ll kind of tell us what we need to work on.”

The Razorbacks have to replace the entire weekend rotation from last season, when the nation’s top pitching staff led the Razorbacks to a 39-22 record while advancing to the championship round of the NCAA Manhattan Regional at Kansas State.

“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t feel great about it right now,” Van Horn said of the team’s starting pitching prospects. “We’ve got a long way to go on the mound, big time. It’s a little spooky.”

Arkansas’ team ERA of 1.89 - the lowest in the NCAA since Connecticut posted a 1.71 in 1976 - will be hard to duplicate this spring, particularly after losing Ryne Stanek, Barrett Austin and Randall Fant to the major-league draft.

“Pitching took a big toll, obviously, but I think we’re going to be OK there,” said junior pitcher Jalen Beeks of Prairie Grove. “We’ve got a lot of young guys looking to prove themselves, and I think if they do that we’re going to have a real good year.”

Sophomore outfielder Tyler Spoon, one of several Razorbacks slowed by injury, predicted a fun season ahead.

“We’ve got a lot of good hitters, a lot of experience back in the field,” Spoon said. “We’ve got a lot of arms, too.”

Spoon and senior catcher Jake Wise are recovering from offseason hernia surgeries. Heralded freshman outfielder Andrew Benintendi is coming back from a broken hand, and outfielder Joe Serrano is also battling an injury, Van Horn said. Those four players comprise half of the Razorbacks’ projected starting lineup.

“I think we’re just being safe right now,” Spoon said. “I’m making good progress and I’m feeling healthy.”

Spoon started all 61 games last season and batted .288with 4 home runs and a teamhigh 49 RBI last season. He has taken cuts in batting practice, but it will probably be a week or more before he’s released to begin running.

Wise is a little behind that on his rehab schedule after starting 52 games last season and batting .212 with 3 home runs and 23 RBI.

Arkansas’ potential starters begin with sophomores Colin Poche and Trey Killian, who saw limited action as starters last season.

Poche, a left-hander, struck out 23 batters in 19 2/3 innings while holding opponents to a .176 batting average. He was 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA in 8 appearances, including 5 starts. Killian,a right-hander, held opponents to a .164 batting average and was 3-3 with a 3.19 ERA in 16 games, including 5 starts.

Chris Oliver and Beeks, both relievers last year, could factor into the starting rotation, as could sophomore Landon Simpson and newcomers like junior college transfer Jacob Stone, a 6-1 right-hander, and top freshman Dominic Taccolini, a 6-3 right-hander.

“We’re obviously not going to be as good as last year because that was an unbelievable staff,” Beeks said. “We have to stay within ourselves and do what we can.”

Arkansas isn’t likely to be tabbed a top contender in the stacked SEC.

“I think outside of Baum Stadium people don’t have high expectations for us, but we’re around it every day,” Spoon said. “We see what we’ve got. I’m really excited.”

Sports, Pages 19 on 01/25/2014