Week 3 baseball observations: The run game, Cronin, lineup and more

By: Matt Jones
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2019
Arkansas shortstop Casey Martin slides into second base during a game against Memphis on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas shortstop Casey Martin slides into second base during a game against Memphis on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Fayetteville.

— Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn recruited Casey Martin with a promise.

"He told me that after my freshman year we're going to go back to recruiting small guys, fast guys, strong players, and we're going to go back to small ball and stealing bases," Martin said. "As you can tell, we have a lot of guys that are 5-10, 5-11 and 180, 190 pounds who can hit. It's nice to go back to something that you were raised playing. I played fast when I was younger."

Through two weeks, Van Horn has been true to his word. The Razorbacks ran like crazy in their series at USC, successfully stealing 11 bases in 12 attempts. During the second game of the series, Arkansas was perfect in all five stolen-base attempts. The Razorbacks were 3-for-3 in the finale.

Arkansas added a 5-for-5 performance Wednesday in a win over Memphis.

For the season, Arkansas has swiped 20 of 22 bags. Martin is 4-for-5, tied with Christian Franklin (4-for-4) and behind Trevor Ezell (6-for-6) for the team lead.

Compare that to last year when the Razorbacks played gorilla ball and went away from the small-ball concepts that were the hallmark of Van Horn's early teams in Fayetteville. Arkansas had only 51 stolen-base attempts last season (39 were successful) in 69 games.

"We're just going to take what you give us," Van Horn said. "We felt like the (USC) catcher had a good arm and a good release, but the pitchers, a few of them were slow to the plate.

"I felt like if our guy got a good jump with the times their pitchers were to the plate, that we could steal them and the catcher would have to make a perfect throw. In a couple of cases he really did make a good throw, but we just beat them."

On their current pace, the Razorbacks would exceed last year's stolen base and attempt totals by the end of their first conference series against Missouri in two weeks. Among SEC teams, only Missouri is stealing bases at a comparable rate to Arkansas' 2.9 per game.

But don't expect the Razorbacks to put the pedal to the metal in every game. Van Horn said Arkansas will run smart and its approach on the bases will be dictated by a number of factors.

One of the primary factors is getting the right players on base. Stealing looks easy when you possess speed like Martin, Ezell and Franklin, who have 30-yard dash times of 3.61, 3.62 and 3.65 seconds, respectively.

"You have guys that can make it down from home to first in 3.6, 3.7, 3.8, and that's pretty fast for the SEC," Martin said. "That's hard to throw out from first to second.

"The power is there and you can't count that out, but the small ball is back. We want to run."

Cronin's short turnaround

Matt Cronin has only pitched on consecutive days twice in his Arkansas career.

The first time was during the championship round of the College World Series last season when Cronin retired the side in the ninth inning to earn the save in Game 1 against Oregon State, but the Beavers sat on his fastball the next night and he blew his only save of the season in the Razorbacks' infamous Game 2 loss.

The second time Cronin pitched in consecutive days went much better. He needed 20 pitches to record four outs in the series opener at USC, and needed eight pitches to record three outs and his second save the following night.

The two outings against the Trojans couldn't have been more different. In the first, Cronin threw nothing but mid-90s fastballs and struck out all four batters he faced.

"You kind of knew after the first batter reacted that it was going to be all fastballs that day," Cronin said.

In the second game, Cronin worked on his breaking pitch and got two outs on contact.

"We found out last year that I would be really dominant with the fastball in the first game when I would close out the series," Cronin said. "Then they would try to bring me back two days later on Sunday and I'd still try to live on fastballs, and I would get hit around. We determined that I need to start having the breaking ball for my second outing. Being able to use that, that's going to be helpful."

Cronin and first-year Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs worked together in the offseason to improve Cronin's endurance so he could pitch on consecutive days. The second day's stuff might not have been as good as the first, but Cronin said his arm felt better after his second outing.

Part of the process has been to add weight. Cronin lost about 15 pounds after a case of mononucleosis midway through last season, but was able to put it back on relatively quick and was around 195 pounds at the College World Series. But it wasn't necessarily good weight because the illness caused him to lose some muscle.

Cronin weighs 225 pounds now and the added muscle is helping his arm recover quicker.

"It felt better than it did in Omaha," Cronin said. "My arm wasn't as tight as it normally would be. There was a soreness there, but my arm was loose. Whenever it's loose I know I can get it going."

Assessing the lineup

Arkansas' batting numbers are predictably down from a comparable snapshot early last season, but through two weeks there has not been a gaping hole in the Razorbacks' lineup that one might have expected given all the firepower lost from last year's roster.

The Razorbacks are batting .300, slugging .449 and have an on-base percentage of .405. Those numbers were aided by a strong season-opening series against EIU. At USC, Arkansas was .245/.382/.351.

The numbers might not be gaudy, but the Razorbacks were productive against the Trojans, scoring 18 runs total and at least four runs in every game.

The 6-through-9 positions in Arkansas' batting order, thought to be a weak link entering the season, combined for 12 hits and 10 walks in the three games at USC, and they provided a number of timely hits.

Batting ninth, Christian Franklin walked three times and scored two runs in Game 1. Batting seventh, Jack Kenley had a pair of two-out RBI hits that scored three runners in Game 2. And batting seventh after a mid-game substitution, Casey Opitz reached base twice in Game 3, including with a leadoff double in the ninth inning that became the tying run to send the game into extra innings. He advanced on a well-placed contact to the right side of the infield by Jacob Nesbit, who as the No. 8 batter has shown a knack for advancing runners through two weeks.

Arkansas is lacking production from two unlikely positions: right field, where preseason All-American Heston Kjerstad was slumping with a .214 average in the No. 2 hole entering the Memphis game, and designated hitter, where Matt Goodheart and Jordan McFarland combined to go 2-for-14 at USC with seven combined strikeouts batting fifth.

The designated hitting has been so inconsistent that Van Horn opted to insert freshman Trey Harris into the lineup for the first time against Memphis. Harris was hitless but walked twice.

There might be some others on the bench who could fill the DH role, but Goodheart and McFarland - if they hit - are the only ones that appear to have the potential to match Luke Bonfield's departed production. So far, Goodheart and McFarland are batting a disappointing .235 and .250, respectively.

Kjerstad was 3-for-15 in the series at USC, and just 1-for-10 in the final two games. Kjerstad entered the series as the hero of the Razorbacks' series against Eastern Illinois, having hit the game-winning single to score Curtis Washington in the bottom of the ninth inning in the series finale.

Kjerstad had plenty of opportunities to produce at USC, but didn't come through in any of his five plate appearances with runners in scoring position. In the series finale he hit a slow roller back to the pitcher that allowed USC to throw out Franklin at the plate in the seventh inning, and he flied out to end the ninth with Casey Martin at second base.

The series dropped his season total to 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position and 0-for-2 with runners on third and less than two outs. He took a step toward breaking out of his funk with a two-out, two-run single in Arkansas' seven-run fifth inning against Memphis.

Kjerstad is too good of a hitter to stay in a slump for long. His production will pick up when he stops chasing pitches out of the strike zone, primarily the high ones. Here is to betting he goes on a hot streak sometime in the next handful of games that could put him back on the right track entering conference play.

The key will then be whether the Razorbacks have found a DH, and whether all of these hitters without SEC at-bats can adjust to improved pitching.

On the USC broadcast

College baseball fans have become spoiled in a short amount of time.

It hasn't been 10 years since a Southeastern Conference team was fortunate to be televised 10 times in a season, with half or more on regional cable networks that could not be accessed by everyone.

Now, almost every game is accessible to most. All of Arkansas' on-campus games are aired either on TV or online via the ESPN app (the game in North Little Rock remains another story), as are road conference games.

The story behind the SEC Network's success has been the individual networks located at each school, which independently produce dozens of sporting events digitally each year. At Arkansas, for instance, more than $8 million was spent to construct a state-of-the-art control room inside Bud Walton Arena that can connect to every stadium and arena on campus.

That is where other conference networks have fallen short, although the soon-to-launch ACC Network is taking a page out of the SEC Network's playbook. Both are affiliated with ESPN.

The Pac-12 Networks are not nearly as advanced, surprising somewhat because of the large TV markets (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle) in which many of the league's schools are located. Of course, as attendance at the Arkansas-USC series showed, the demand for college sports in those markets is substantially lower than in the South because of the many professional teams that compete for viewing time and the entertainment dollar.

It is the away non-conference games that can make Arkansas fans appreciate what they have, from fan support to facilities to coverage. Never has that been more evident than last week's series at USC, where the online broadcast was worse than some 7A-West high school football streams.

Thursday's online telecast of the game did not go live until after the first pitch, and when it did it was not very good. The USC broadcast had three cameras - one behind home plate that appeared to be stationary and not manned by anyone; one in center field with an operator; and one with an operator on the third-base side that was out of focus.

When the NCAA rulebook states replays are able to be utilized "where the technology exists," few expect an exception to be an urban university with a world-class film school. But that was the case at USC, where plays down the foul lines weren't visible on camera and plays at the bases were often out of focus or not shown at all.

As far as college baseball has come, it still has a ways to go when a 12-time national champion from a Power 5 conference can't put together a better broadcast.

Offensive Player of the Week: Trevor Ezell

There is a reason Ezell was a candidate to lead off this season: he knows how to get on base.

At USC, the redshirt-senior infielder reached in his first seven plate appearances and in eight of his first 10.

In Game 1, Ezell reached base all five times he came to the plate. He went 2-for-4 in the game, walked once and reached twice on errors. He walked in his first two appearances - and three times total - the following game.

He had a third-inning single in Game 3, but struggled otherwise and finished 1-for-5. Against Memphis, Ezell was 3-for-5 with an RBI.

Ezell might be the team's best offensive player right now and the numbers back it up. He leads the team in batting average (.423), slugging (.615), on-base percentage (.529), runs scored (8) and walks (7).

Defensive Player of the Week: Casey Opitz

The offensive run game is fun to watch and gets a lot of praise, and it is easy to overlook the defensive side. But it was hard to miss Opitz's performance in Los Angeles.

Van Horn called Games 1 and 2 at USC the best defensive performances he has ever seen by a catcher at the college level "because of the balls in the dirt, the blocks, jumping on it, throwing people out. We were very impressed."

That's from a coach that has had some great defensive catchers come through Fayetteville, such as current big leaguer James McCann.

Opitz threw out both base runners trying to steal on him in Game 2 of the series. In the fifth inning, Opitz caught John Thomas trying to go first to second, and in the sixth he caught CJ Stubbs going second to third to end the inning.

Opitz and backup catcher Zack Plunkett showed they could control the game in the preseason when both were incredibly difficult to run against. During one preseason scrimmage, both threw out four runners apiece.

Plunkett allowed a steal after a one-out walk in the second inning of the finale at USC, but caught his first runner against Memphis with a great throw to third base.

Pitcher of the Week: Jacob Kostyshock

Reports out of the Northwoods League last summer were not exaggerated. Kostyshock has turned a corner as a pitcher, and just in time considering that he is eligible for the draft in June.

He entered Game 3 at USC in the fifth inning and with Arkansas trailing 2-1. By mixing his mid-90s fastball with a plus-changeup, Kostyshock retired the first 10 batters he faced until USC singled with one out in the eighth inning. The run eventually came around to score on a defensive lapse that should have been ruled an error, but was ruled a double. It is the only earned run Kostyshock has allowed in 8 2/3 innings this season.

Chase Bushor's eighth-inning single also was the first hit Kostyshock had allowed in nearly seven innings. In between his only blemishes were two walks.

Kostyshock, like a couple of other relievers, presents Arkansas coaches with a dilemma. With him pitching so well, do you start him? Or do you let a younger pitcher start and keep the veterans on the back end?

A guess: Arkansas will roll with younger starters for as long as it works and let older pitchers like Kostyshock work out of the bullpen.

Hit of the Week: Casey Martin's home run

A strong wind blowing in from left field kept the ball from flying out of Dedeaux Field last weekend, which made Martin's no-doubt home run in the fifth inning of Game 2 all the more impressive.

Martin knew he got all of the pitch the minute the ball left his bat barrel. It was a high, long drive that easily cleared the 375-foot tall fence in the left alley of the ballpark.

"It would have gone out anywhere," Van Horn said. "It didn't matter how hard the wind was blowing."

For my money, it was Martin's second-best home run swing in his college career, behind the one he hit into the parking lot off Florida's Jackson Kowar at the SEC Tournament last May.

Gem of the Week: Dominic Fletcher's catch in center field

Apparently, Christian Franklin made a great back-handed, diving catch in left field that began a double play in Game 1, but only those in attendance know for sure. The camera behind home plate never moved on the diving catch down the foul lines.

The best defensive play I saw was Dominic Fletcher's over-the-shoulder catch on a full sprint in the sixth inning of Game 3.

We have become so accustomed to seeing Fletcher leave his feet to make great plays that a play like this one can be overlooked. It is even better given the tightness of the game. USC would have had a runner in scoring position had he not made the play, but instead the Trojans went down in order in the inning and the Razorbacks remained within 2-1.

Stat of the Week: 2-out hitting

Arkansas has scored 20 of its 28 runs with two outs, and had 17 RBI with two outs in the past four games. The Razorbacks are batting .313 with two outs this season.

He scored it how?

Many asked why Marshall Denton was given the loss in USC's walk-off victory last Saturday.

The answer: Because the home scorekeeper got it wrong.

The loss should have gone to Arkansas freshman Patrick Wicklander, who gave up the game-tying RBI single to Jamal O'Guinn in the previous at-bat. O'Guinn was Wicklander's responsibility and because he scored the winning run, Wicklander was the losing pitcher.

Arkansas is in the process of appealing the scoring decision to the NCAA, which will ultimately grant Wicklander with the loss. Until then, the Arkansas stats will reflect what the NCAA has on file, which are the stats submitted by the home team.

Another head-scratching scoring play can't be appealed. In the eighth inning of Game 3, with Arkansas and USC tied at 2-2, Arkansas second baseman Jack Kenley drifted several yards into the outfield and called off right fielder Heston Kjerstad, only to let a high popup drop between the two of them.

The play was scored an RBI double for USC hitter CJ Stubbs, who later his the game-winning home run in the 10th inning. By scoring it a double, Arkansas pitcher Jacob Kostyshock was tagged with an earned run, his first of the season.

"That's an error if I've ever seen one," Van Horn said, "because that's an easy play."

Things I like

• The production of Jacob Nesbit and Christian Franklin in the Nos. 8 and 9 holes. The Arkansas freshmen have on-base percentages of .360 and .556, respectively, and are giving the top of the lineup a lot of RBI opportunities.

• Early-season road series. The trend is for Power 5 teams to play at neutral sites early in the year, but there is nothing like a good-old-fashioned home-and-home series. USC was Arkansas' first non-conference, weekend home-and-home since a series against California in 2009 and 2010, but the last for the foreseeable future. Arkansas will play neutral-site events in Texas early in 2020 (Houston), 2021 (Arlington) and 2022 (Round Rock).

• The bullpen. It is easy to see why Dave Van Horn is so high on his relievers and we have yet to see Arkansas' full offering on the weekend. The Razorbacks have enough left-handed arms to play to averages, and there are a lot of right-handed relievers with strong off-speed pitches that can take a trip through the batting order to solve.

• Matt Hobbs' restraint. The new Arkansas pitching coach has made one visit to the mound this season, to talk with Isaiah Campbell in the fifth inning of the season opener against Eastern Illinois.

Things I don't like

• Diminishing the home run feat of Arkansas softball sophomore Danielle Gibson because it did not happen in baseball. Unfortunately, social media gives a voice to the jealous and clueless. Four home runs in four at-bats is impressive no matter the sport, no matter the level.

• Mispronouncing names. I must have heard four or five Arkansas names pronounced incorrectly - or outright wrong - on the USC broadcast despite a pronunciation guide in the extensive batch of notes provided beforehand.

• Comparing every misplayed or adventurous popup in 2019 to the play in foul ground at last year's College World Series. It's time to move on.


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