ARKANSAS BASEBALL:

Improved offense, pitching expected by Van Horn

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, October 30, 2016
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn watches practice on Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn watches practice on Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas baseball Coach Dave Van Horn thinks the the Razorbacks are positioned to bounce back after they dropped their final 13 games to finish 26-29 last season and out of the postseason for the first time in Van Horn's 14 years with the Hogs.

"Fall baseball went extremely well, as far as the competition for positions," Van Horn said at his fall wrap news conference. "I thought the work ethic and the attitude was outstanding and ... we're really looking forward to getting back onto the field after the way we finished last spring."

Van Horn thinks pitchers will have better velocity and the offense will have a deeper pool to call on.

"We'll be able to run guys in and out of there offensively," Van Horn said. "I feel like we have a lot more depth offensively, from both left- and right-handed hitters."

The Razorbacks had a .275 team batting average last season, ninth in the SEC, but in conference games, they hit .264 and scored 4.6 runs per game.

Van Horn thinks the middle of the lineup should be more productive, capable of hitting for power and making opposing pitchers battle for outs.

"We feel like we have a little bit of pop," Van Horn said. "We're not going to sit around and wait to hit home runs, but that threat is going to be in there up and down the lineup.

"Something you always want as a coach is to put as much pressure on the other team's pitching staff as possible, where you can wear them down. I feel that we're going to be able to do that this year."

Van Horn expects outfielder Eric Cole to bat leadoff most frequently and that he'll have a lot of options in the middle of the order, including versatile Carson Shaddy, outfielder Luke Bonfield, power-hitting Chad Spanberger, much-improved outfielder Jake Arledge and catcher Grant Koch.

"I would say Grant Koch made the biggest jump, with Jake Arledge not too far behind," Van Horn said. "This fall his arm is 100 percent healthy. He's throwing the ball better than he ever has, and he's throwing accurately with arm strength. ... Offensively, he was lights out, and he was facing some good arms. I think he had seven or eight home runs this fall. I'd say he had double-digit doubles."

Van Horn said Koch projects to hit somewhere between third and fifth. Koch had a .276 average last season and 8 of his 21 hits (38.1 percent) went for extra bases. Only Spanberger (43.4 percent), who had six home runs and four doubles, and Arledge (42.3 percent) had higher percentages of extra-base hits.

Shaddy, whose arm strength is much better a year removed from Tommy John surgery, is likely to start at second, but he could play outfield and catch. Shaddy led the team with a .332 average, 8 home runs and a .521 slugging percentage last year.

The outfield is stacked, Van Horn said. In addition to returning veterans Bonfield, Cole, Arledge and Spanberger, who could also factor in at first base, the Razorbacks look to add freshman Dominic Fletcher in center field.

Bonfield, a .304 hitter with a .509 slugging percentage and team-high 39 RBI, considered declaring for the draft but changed his mind.

"I just wanted to fine-tune some things and become a little bit more consistent and work on my arm strength and speed," Bonfield said. "The real reason I came back is -- and we're seeing it now -- our team is looking really, really good."

Van Horn said sophomore pitchers Isaiah Campbell and Blaine Knight project as weekend starters, in competition with veteran right-handers Keaton McKinney and Dominic Taccolini. Junior college transfer Trevor Stephan, a 6-5 right-hander; Taccolini; and sophomore Barrett Loeseke should be among the top candidates for the closer role.

Van Horn said right-hander Campbell consistently hit 95 and 96 mph this summer and left-hander Knight wasn't far behind as new pitching coach Wes Johnson stresses higher velocity and pushes his crew to pitch with confidence.

Campbell, who led the California Collegiate Summer League in victories, strengthened his arms and legs with weight and circuit training.

Campbell, sitting with Bonfield at the news conference, said he's eager to forget last season.

"I was just ready to get back here and get fall ball going and get back with the team, because I want to have what Luke had his freshman year, going to the College World Series and getting that experience."

The Razorbacks open Feb. 17 with six home games against Miami (Ohio) and Bryant before embarking on a road trip that includes a pair of games at Louisiana Tech as a prelude to games against Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma State in the Frisco Classic in suburban Dallas.

Arkansas opens SEC play at home March 17 against Mississippi State and also hosts series against LSU, Georgia, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. They have road series at Missouri, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M.

Sports on 10/30/2016

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