Hogs take 1st step to Omaha return

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, February 15, 2019
A video board informs fans of Arkansas' season-opening date during an exhibition game against Wichita State on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
A video board informs fans of Arkansas' season-opening date during an exhibition game against Wichita State on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, in Fayetteville.

Editor's Note: Arkansas' season opener has been rescheduled for noon Saturday because of poor weather conditions.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Do the Arkansas Razorbacks have the goods to make a return trip to the College World Series?

The first clues to the No. 12 Razorbacks' viability for backing up their CWS runner-up finish in 2018 are likely to start being revealed today. The University of Arkansas is scheduled to host Eastern Illinois at 3 p.m. today in the first game at the newly christened Baum-Walker Stadium.

The weather forecast includes a strong chance for rain in the morning and a 55 percent chance by the first pitch, with the temperature projected at around 40 degrees and falling.

Junior center fielder Dominic Fletcher found out this fall he's an elder statesman on a team that features hot-shot sophomores in Heston Kjerstad, the SEC freshman of the year in 2018, and Casey Martin, who projects as one of the nation's top shortstops in his first season at the spot.

"I showed up in the fall and looked around and I was like, 'Holy crap, I'm the older guy now,' " Fletcher said.

"It's a little different for me for sure because last year we had a ton of those older guys. All the juniors and seniors we had kind of took the lead."

The Razorbacks (48-21 in 2018) are scheduled to start 6-4 right-hander Isaiah Campbell (5-7, 4.26 ERA), who has the chance to become the staff ace. Eastern Illinois will counter with 6-5 right-hander Tyler Jones (7-3, 3.52), a preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference selection.

"He's 6-5, knows how to pitch, gets ground balls, and he's added strikeout pitches to his arsenal this year," Eastern Illinois Coach Jason Anderson said of Jones.

UP NEXT

ARKANSAS BASEBALL

vs. Eastern Illinois

WHEN 3 p.m. today

WHERE Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville

2018 RECORDS No. 12 Arkansas 48-21 (18-12 in SEC); Eastern Illinois 23-31 (12-18 in Ohio Valley Conference)

STARTING PITCHERS Eastern Illinois RHP Tyler Jones (7-3, 3.52 ERA); Arkansas RHP Isaiah Campbell (5-7, 4.26)

SERIES Arkansas leads 26-2.

COACHES Jason Anderson (56-103 in fourth season at Eastern Illinois); Dave Van Horn (643-364 in 17th season at Arkansas)

RADIO Razorback Sports Network. Not all games will be carried by all affiliates. Check local listings.

TV None

SHORT HOPS

Arkansas was second in the SEC in batting average (.301), third in pitching (3.55 ERA) and 12th in fielding (.972) in fielding in 2018. … The Razorbacks were second in the SEC with a team-record 98 home runs. … Eastern Illinois ranked third in the OVC in hitting (.271), sixth in pitching (6.26 ERA) and sixth in fielding (.965). … All 28 games in the series have been played in Fayetteville, where the Razorbacks hold a 26-2 edge. … Arkansas won 2 of 3 in the ast series between the teams on March 4-6, 2016. The Hogs won the opener 5-2 and the finale 3-2, dropping the middle game 10-8 in 12 innings.

UPCOMING GAMES

TODAY Eastern Illinois, 3 p.m.

SATURDAY Eastern Illinois, 2 p.m.

SUNDAY Eastern Illinois, 1 p.m.

MONDAY Off

TUESDAY Off

WEDNESDAY Off

THURSDAY at USC, 9 p.m.

"This is going to be a good test, especially in the weather conditions, to see where he's at. You don't get many chances to run into a school like Arkansas ... and this is his chance to do it."

The Razorbacks have gone 16-0 in season openers under Coach Dave Van Horn with an average winning margin of 6.0 runs per game. But the Hogs will have a vastly different look this season, with only Fletcher manning the same position he started last season.

Kjerstad is switching corner outfield spots to right field, and Martin is moving from third base to short. Jordan McFarland is in a position battle with transfers Trevor Ezell and Matt Goodheart at first base.

Projected new starters are catcher Casey Opitz, who is expected to split time with Zack Plunkett, left fielder Christian Franklin, second baseman Jack Kenley and third baseman Jacob Nesbit.

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn, who has led the Razorbacks to five CWS appearances in his 16 seasons, was asked if he'd tinker with his lineup the first couple of weekends.

"We're going to go after every game, obviously," Van Horn said. "We can't let them slip away. If we have a chance to win it, we're going to do what we have to do. ... It'd be nice to get the starters 12, 13 at-bats against somebody else and just play the game together, no matter if we're down or up. You're going to see those guys stay in the game."

Both teams have practiced outdoors this semester as much as possible, though the Razorbacks have had more success.

"Forty degrees will feel like a heatwave to us," said Anderson, whose team bused the 499 miles down from Charleston, Ill., on Thursday.

"We haven't worked much at all outside. But we're going to be ready. ... I think we've played two scrimmages outside and maybe one other batting practice besides that. But fortunately in Charleston we've got a setup where we can get everything done."

Van Horn and Anderson will be paying attention during batting practice.

"They've got two of their better pitchers back and I think two of their top four hitters back, but they lost a lot of hitters too," Van Horn said. "It's one of those things you just kind of watch pregame batting practice, try to make a few notes and take what we can get in a scouting report and what we know. ... The key for us the first weekend is just to play our game and play good because we don't know what the other team's really all about."

Anderson agreed.

"It's really hard to get too far out front of the scouting stuff because there's a lot of things that can happen between the end of last year and the start of this year," Anderson said. "In a way, you kind of go out and go with your own game plan and play your own style of baseball and see what happens."

The Razorbacks' long-term aim of making the program's 10th trip to the College World Series remains the same as ever.

"We feel our team is going to get to Omaha and do really well, but you know that's every year," Kjerstad said. "You've just got to feed off of it and focus one day at a time and one at bat at a time and see you what you can do."

The Razorbacks' top returning players are Martin (.345, 13 HR, 49 RBI), outfielders Kjerstad (.332, 14, 58) and Fletcher (.288, 10, 49) and McFarland (.299, 3, 15).

Eastern Illinois' top returning veterans are middle infielder Jimmy Govern (.331, 7, 38), a preseason All-OVC choice, first baseman Hunter Morris (.326, 11, 55) and catcher Ryan Knernschield (.331, 1, 18).

For Saturday's 2 p.m. game, Arkansas freshman right-hander Connor Noland is scheduled to face Eastern Illinois junior right-hander Michael YaSenka (3-3, 8.14).

The starters for Sunday's 1 p.m. finale are scheduled to be Arkansas right-hander Jacob Kostyshock (0-0, 6.43) and Eastern Illinois righty Spenser Dexter (0-2, 7.40).

Sports on 02/15/2019

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