Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
Van Horn pleased with progress
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn watches from the dugout during a SEC Tournament game against LSU on Saturday, May 24, 2014 at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas' head coach feels good about the Razorbacks' fifth 40-win season in six years.
Dave Van Horn said Wednesday he was happy with his team's improvement throughout the season, including an 11-4 stretch before a season-ending loss at the Virginia regional. The Razorbacks, who lost 11 players in last year's MLB Draft, finished the year with a 40-25 record and made the NCAA postseason for the 13th consecutive season.
"It ended up being a pretty good season," said Van Horn, who will coach the USA collegiate national team this summer. "We knew last fall that we had a lot of holes to fill, especially on the pitching side of it and obviously offensively. What I really enjoyed about the season is we got better.
"We kind of had their backs against the wall and they fought their way out and won a lot of games down the stretch. If you had asked me in the fall if I thought we would win 40 games, I probably would have told you, 'Yes,' but I might not have been telling you the truth. We knew it was going to be a fight. So I was proud of this this team."
After recording the NCAA's lowest team earned run average in nearly four decades last season, Arkansas' pitching staff continued to carry the team in 2014. Despite losing seven players to minor league baseball - including three top 90 picks - the Razorbacks finished with a 2.63 ERA, which is the second lowest in school history.
Arkansas' starting pitching was solid. Jalen Beeks had a 1.98 ERA in 13 starts, Trey Killian had a 2.30 ERA in 14 starts and Chris Oliver had a 2.51 ERA in 16 starts.
The Razorbacks' bullpen didn't give up a run the first 18 innings of their regional at Virginia and relief pitcher Michael Gunn broke a school record by allowing only three earned runs in 28 appearances.
"To me, Trey and Beeks, those guys are like MVPs, because we didn't have to go to that inexperienced bullpen too much," Van Horn said. "Then (Zach) Jackson was pretty good early out of the pen, and Gunn was good pretty much all year except for a couple or three outings. (Jacob) Stone was real good late. The pitching staff overall, if you look at the numbers, it was pretty good. It was a lot better than I thought it would be."
Van Horn said he is concerned about his team's pitching depth next season. Killian will be back for his junior year, but starting experience among the rest of the returners is minimal. Jackson, a freshman, could factor into the rotation. Virginia coach Brian O'Connor called the right-hander a potential first-round pick following his outing Sunday against the Cavaliers.
"You watch the major league draft in two years," O'Connor said. "In my opinion he's a lock to be a first-round pick. He's got great, great stuff."
Beeks and Oliver are expected to be high round picks in this week's MLB Draft, as the team's leading hitter Brian Anderson. Van Horn also expects Gunn and first baseman Eric Fisher to sign professional contracts.
Van Horn said multi-year starting outfielders Tyler Spoon and Joe Serrano should return next season. Spoon was a freshman all-American last year but struggled at the plate in his redshirt sophomore campaign after an off-season hernia surgery and in-season injures to both his shoulder and wrist.
"He didn't have the year that he thought he was going to have and we have talked a lot about it," Van Horn said. "I think he wants to come back and have a big year next year."
Stone, who was the team's closer in the postseason, might return for his senior season, Van Horn said. Brett McAfee, who missed the final two-plus seasons with a back injury, is also expected to return at shortstop.
Arkansas has several signees high on draft boards this week. Right-hander Keaton McKinney could be taken on the draft's first day and outfielder Luke Bonfield is also a high round projection. Van Horn said he felt good about the Razorbacks' chances with coveted California prep catcher Nathan Rodriguez, who is rated among the top 200 draft-eligible prospects by Baseball America.
"He claims he's coming to school," Van Horn said. "Fullerton and Arizona were highly upset when he picked Arkansas. I committed him two and a half years ago and have been working on him ever since. And I'll be on the phone with him again tonight."
A portion of this story was syndicated by The Associated Press