State of the Hogs: Schedule accomplished mission for talented Arkansas

By: Clay Henry
Published: Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, left, and pitching coach Wes Johnson watch a scrimmage Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, left, and pitching coach Wes Johnson watch a scrimmage Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— It was media day in late January when pitching coach Wes Johnson was asked about the schedule, perhaps the toughest ever attempted by an Arkansas baseball team.

Johnson said he joked with head coach Dave Van Horn in the early fall when it became clear what was on tap.

“I asked him, 'What did I do to you?'” Johnson said.

With a wave of his arm, Johnson then motioned around the Arkansas locker room as players visited with media. He said, “This is the kind of team you go at a schedule like that.”

Then he mentioned the possibility of rolling into post-season play with a top eight RPI. It could lead to a home regional and a home super regional in the NCAA Tournament. Guess what? The Razorbacks are sitting at No. 4 in the RPI ahead of the SEC tournament.

The Hogs rolled to a 37-17 overall record, including 18-12 in conference games for a first-place tie with Ole Miss in the SEC West. They are 18-6 against teams in the top 25 of the RPI.

They don't have to apologize for letting Ole Miss catch them for first on the last day of the regular season. Ole Miss got the schedule break this season. The Rebels played Arkansas and Georgia at home and did not play at Florida, as did their co-champ from the Ozarks.

The Hogs did all that while surviving a large amount of injuries. Potential regulars on the mound Keaton McKinney and Kevin Kopps were both felled by Tommy John surgery. Kopps would have been a key setup man out of the bullpen, perhaps pitching twice a week with a nasty cutter.

They also battled through injuries to regulars in the batting order. Jared Gates, Carson Shaddy, Casey Martin and Jax Biggers all missed top 25 games with injuries. Yet, the Hogs rolled on.

They lost 10 games on the road by one or two runs, losing badly only in the middle game of the series at Florida when Isaiah Campbell left early with an elbow injury. They fell at Georgia, 3-2, in the Saturday finale when Heston Kjerstad was thrown out at the plate in the ninth.

Going back to the conversation with Johnson on media day, he said he was pleased with the schedule that Van Horn lined up that included non-conference games against Southern Cal, Texas, Texas Tech, Kent State and Missouri State. All were tough tests.

“Really, though, we think almost exactly alike,” Johnson said. “What good is it to head into SEC play with a 21-1 record? You want to play teams that get you ready. It's a tough schedule, but it's what I wanted."

The SEC is always tough, but this was an especially rugged year for what is typically the nation's best baseball league. Van Horn and Johnson both predicted it would be strong with veteran lineups all around the conference. Some projections have as many as 12 teams from the SEC making the NCAA Tournament.

“This is the best the SEC has been in 25 years," Johnson said. "So I wanted something that prepared us for what we are going to see. We need good, tough games and this is just fine.

“We talked about the schedule and I mentioned to him that I liked it tough. We knew what we had on this team and added some tough games late. We knew the league was good, too. So we were on the same page. We really were.

“The schedule is tough and they will all matter in our RPI. They are good games in that regard.”

Johnson figured he had the pitching depth to survive brutal midweek games. There are standout veterans on the staff, plus a loaded group of true freshman hurlers.

It's a big, strong Arkansas team ready to take on that challenge. Johnson pointed at several members of his pitching staff on that media day visit – and a few of the position players – seated around him.

“Look at these guys,” Johnson said. “We are much stronger than last year. I think as coaches we thought we wore down last year. We wanted to be bigger and stronger ahead of this schedule and I think we've done that.”

And, there were key freshmen that pushed their way into the lineup and on the mound. Kjerstad, the left fielder, was the SEC freshman of the year, perhaps beating out teammate Casey Martin, the third baseman.

Van Horn wasn't surprised that either exploded. Kjerstad led the team in hitting in the fall. And, by the end of the fall, Martin was right there with him. Van Horn predicted in October that Martin would be an All-SEC player before his UA career ended.

Van Horn made a similar prediction for Martin on media day, once again mentioning his vast potential.

"He may have the quickest bat on the team," Van Horn said. "I will say this Carson Shaddy is at second and he is doing well, but he sees what's happening around him. We've got lots of young talent. Martin is going to be an all-SEC player. I might put him in the outfield. We may hit him against lefty pitching. He can really zip that bat."

About Kjerstad, Van Horn said, “He's such a threat.”

Senior Luke Bonfield said, “He's a future big leaguer.”

Oh, all of that looks on target.

Kjerstad hit .348 to finish sixth in the SEC batting race. Martin was ninth at .344.

Yeah, and the Hogs are sitting pretty for post-season play. Turns out Dave Van Horn knew exactly what he had assembled. They were built for the toughest schedule in school history and maybe for a run to Omaha.

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