Arkansas baseball team eager to forget last year

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, February 17, 2017
Arkansas players huddle before a practice Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas players huddle before a practice Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Opening day for the Arkansas baseball team today at Baum Stadium comes with a little more urgency than normal in a 3 p.m. start.

For the first time in Coach Dave Van Horn's 14-year tenure, the Razorbacks are not coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance. Van Horn and the Hogs are eager to start putting 2016, and their current 13-game losing streak, in the rear-view mirror.

"We've got something to prove this year. That last year was just a fluke," junior infielder Chad Spanberger said. "It won't happen again this year."

Van Horn had led 18 consecutive teams at Arkansas and Nebraska to the tournament before the Hogs' late collapse, which led to a 27-29 record, including 7-23 in the SEC.

"As a coach, you always wonder if you're going to be ready," Van Horn said. "I'm excited that the weather is going to be good and for the opportunity to play somebody else."

The temperature is projected to be 65 degrees with low humidity and no chance for rain, for today's 3 p.m. first pitch against Miami (Ohio) (27-29) of the Mid-American Conference.

Arkansas will start sophomore right-hander Blaine Knight (2-1, 2.98 ERA) against Miami's ace right-hander Cole Gnetz (4-2, 3.75) in the opener of a three-game set.

"Good arm, good curveball," Arkansas outfielder Luke Bonfield said of the scouting report on Gnetz. "So we're going to be ready for that. Playing in the SEC, we see a lot of good arms."

The RedHawks were 14-10 in the MAC East last season, finishing second in the division, six games behind Kent State. They were projected to finished second, again behind Kent State, in a preseason vote of the league's 11 coaches.

"I think they'll be as good as some of the teams that we opened up against," Van Horn said. "The right-hander we'll see Friday has a lot of experience, and the left-hander [Zach Spears] we'll see Saturday started a lot of games.

"They have a really good bullpen. ... They have a plan, and their plan is to build a lead and get those guys in."

Miami returns its top two hitters in first baseman Ross Haffey (.355, 11 HR, 48 RBI) and outfielder Tyler Harris (.289, 7, 25) a Shiloh Christian graduate who transferred last year from Missouri State.

Arkansas pitchers are expected to be more aggressive with added velocity under first-year pitching coach Wes Johnson.

Knight, a Bryant graduate, opened 2016 in the starting rotation, but moved back and forth to the bullpen, making seven starts and 11 relief appearances. He added to his repertoire in the off-season.

"All my pitches are stronger than last year," Knight said. "Velocity went up on my fastball working with Coach Johnson. My breaking ball is a lot better, change-up is a lot better, and I developed a cutter over the fall that I really like now and will be one of my main pitches over this year."

Sophomore right-hander Isaiah Campbell, who projected as a weekend starter based on fall and spring workouts, is questionable with tightness in his pitching arm.

The Razorbacks were last in the SEC with a 5.02 ERA last season, but there were in the middle of the pack with a .275 team batting average.

Juniors Carson Shaddy (.332) and Bonfield (.304), the team's top two hitters last year with .332 and .304 averages, respectively, are back to lead the offense. Shaddy is starting at second base, his fourth starting position in three years. Bonfield, coming off a deep quad bruise suffered in the last 2016 series, is back in left field.

"I think we're going to be a really good mix," Bonfield said. "We're going to be a mix of power and speed. Guys who can fight to get on base and not strike out a whole ton. And we've got some guys who will strike out some. It's a really good mix to be a successful offense."

Projected starting first baseman Jared Gates suffered a broken hamate bone in his right hand and will be out at least five weeks, triggering a couple of moves on the Arkansas infield. Spanberger, who was targeted to play third base, will move to first, and junior college transfer Hunter Wilson will get the nod at third base.

Spanberger said the Razorbacks are ready to get separation from last May's swoon.

"What did we end on, a 13-game streak last year?" he asked reporters. "Something like that. This first win, it'll be nice to get."

Sports on 02/17/2017

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