Hogs' competition strong at third base

By: Matt Jones
Published: Thursday, February 8, 2018
Arkansas' Jack Kenley fields a ball against Alcorn State Wednesday, March 15, 2017, during the sixth inning at Baum Stadium.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas' Jack Kenley fields a ball against Alcorn State Wednesday, March 15, 2017, during the sixth inning at Baum Stadium.

— With eight days remaining before Arkansas opens the 2018 baseball season against Bucknell, the hot corner remains a hot battle.

Sophomore Jack Kenley and redshirt junior Hunter Wilson are favorites at third base. The Razorbacks plan to scrimmage multiple times this weekend, which will go a long way toward determining an opening-day starter, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.

Kenley started five times at third base last season, including twice during the NCAA regional, and often was a defensive replacement on that side of the infield late in games in 2017 because of a perfect fielding percentage.

"Jack can really field," Van Horn said of Kenley last week. "I almost compare him with Bobby Wernes, who was the best third baseman defensively I've ever coached. He has incredible range over there.

"I'm always talking to these guys about defense. If you want to win a championship, you've got to play defense."

But Kenley struggled for much of last season at the plate. He was hitless in his first 20 at-bats and finished his freshman campaign with a .133 batting average.

Like Kenley, Wilson is considered a plus glove and had a perfect fielding percentage a year ago. He also batted well - .310 in 14 games last season, albeit none against SEC competition.

Wilson, who transferred to Arkansas from Stephen F. Austin by way of Eastern Oklahoma Junior College, missed most of 2017 with a broken leg that he suffered when he fouled a ball off his plant leg during a game against Alcorn State last March.

"It's been tough because they're fighting and battling it out," Van Horn said of Kenley and Wilson. "It's been great competition."

Kenley and Wilson both bat from the left side. Van Horn said right-handed freshman Casey Martin, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's high school player of the year at Lonoke in 2017, might start some against left-handed pitchers.

"He played shortstop in high school and this past year in summer ball we sent him out to the Midland Redskins and played third all summer," Van Horn said. "He's still a freshman and gets ahead of himself sometimes, but he can be electric as well."

Van Horn said he feels good about most other positions in the field. The likely opening-day lineup will include Grant Koch at catcher, Carson Shaddy at second base, Jax Biggers at shortstop, Heston Kjerstad in left field, Dominic Fletcher in center field and Eric Cole in right field.

Senior Jared Gates is the favorite to start at first base but is being pushed by sophomore Evan Lee, who also pitches. Gates and Lee both are left-handed.

Like at third base, Van Horn said he is considering a platoon at first in which sophomore right-hander Jordan McFarland would start against left-handed pitching.

"There is a ton of competition and it's pretty ridiculous the kind of depth we have," Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson said. "It's going to be a fight to get into the game. The cool part for a tactician like Coach Van Horn is he can move guys, he can platoon guys, he can pinch-run, he can pinch-hit, he can defensively replace. I mean, we can play a different kind of lineup on a different kind of day, depending on what we need, whether we need more offense or we just need to have a shutdown defense."

Senior Luke Bonfield, who bats from the right side, and freshman Cole Turney, who bats from the left, are leading candidates to be the Razorbacks' designated hitter. Bonfield also is expected to play some in left field.

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