Hogs baseball team set to play two down

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Arkansas catcher Grant Koch reaches for his ankle during the seventh inning of a game against Texas A&M on Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas catcher Grant Koch reaches for his ankle during the seventh inning of a game against Texas A&M on Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- It appears the No. 6 Arkansas Razorbacks will start their final regular-season series at No. 13 Georgia on Thursday without two key veterans up the middle and first base not fully settled.

Coach Dave Van Horn said Tuesday that catcher Grant Koch and shortstop Jax Biggers are unlikely for the 6 p.m. series opener at Foley Field in Athens, Ga.

He sounded upbeat about having freshman catcher Casey Opitz and sophomore shortstop Jack Kenley filling in for the two juniors, and giving junior Hunter Wilson more time at first base, where his defense was hit and miss during last weekend's sweep of Texas A&M.

"As of right now, I see Kenley starting and I see Opitz starting," Van Horn said. "I see Hunter Wilson starting.

"A lot of times at this level you have your starters and then you have guys who aren't ready yet. They can't just fill in and keep you close to the same level that maybe you lost. You drop down a notch because of experience or talent or whatever the case. But so far we've had guys step it up pretty good and have filled in and made plays or got big hits and maybe you haven't noticed."

Ace reliever Matt Cronin said he expects to gain strength in the coming days after missing nine games in the span of 21 days while recovering from mononucleosis.

"My endurance is a little down, so I get tired out a little quicker, but I feel good," Cronin said.

Cronin threw 27 pitches in two innings in Sunday's 6-3 victory over Texas A&M. He noted his legs were fatigued after being pulled with one out in the ninth.

"I couldn't get the ball down," he said. "I was throwing every pitch high."

Cronin said he lost 10 pounds while dealing with mononucleosis, and he is trying to eat a lot and put weight back on.

"I started working out yesterday, and that was the first day I could do that," he said. "So I'm just trying to get my legs strong again, and I'll be good to go."

Kenley went 0 for 6 in the victories over the Aggies after Biggers suffered a broken bone on the tip of the index finger of his left hand while bunting in the first inning of the opener. Kenley did have three walks and a hit by pitch, two sacrifice bunts and made no errors in the field in 14 chances. He started a couple of key double plays Sunday and timed his jumps perfectly to snare a couple of line drives Friday.

Opitz caught the final two innings on Sunday after Koch suffered a sprained ankle. He played well defensively and had a sacrifice fly in his only at-bat in the eighth inning of a 6-3 victory.

"I think in a different situation, he'd have a lot more playing time," Van Horn said of Opitz, who is hitting .250 (6 of 24) with 5 RBI, 2 doubles and 3 walks in 15 appearances.

Van Horn said the coaching staff and trainers ask the players who have been nicked up -- which include seven lost games for second baseman Carson Shaddy with a badly bruised hand -- to be honest about their conditions.

"We'll go to the next guy and we've had guys step it up," Van Horn said. "If we were in a super regional and we were three guys down, we'd be really concerned. But at this time of the year ... obviously we want to win the league, but we just want to play well and we feel good about the guys we have.

"I think the young guys, they get the sense the players are OK with that, the guys that play every day. We're not walking around all nervous and on edge because we've got Casey Opitz catching or Jack Kenley playing shortstop. It's not an issue to us.

"Yeah, you lose some experience and you may lose some power -- definitely at the catching position -- but as far as the defensive part of it, we feel pretty good."

Arkansas pitchers said Tuesday they've gotten plenty of work throwing to Optiz and reserve catcher Zack Plunkett.

"I'm perfectly fine with either of them back there," junior Kacey Murphy said. "All three of them are good catchers. We trust all of them.

"We throw bullpens with all three of them all the time. Yeah, Grant's our No. 1 guy, but they all get the same amount of work in off the field."

Said the sophomore Cronin: "I'm fine with either of them. I think they're very good defensive catchers. I feel comfortable with them receiving the pitch."

Sports on 05/16/2018


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