Opitz gives Hogs versatility as SEC play approaches

By: Clay Henry
Published: Monday, March 11, 2019
Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz signals to the Razorback dugout after hitting an RBI double Stony Brook Saturday, March 2, 2019, during the inning at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz signals to the Razorback dugout after hitting an RBI double Stony Brook Saturday, March 2, 2019, during the inning at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.

— Dave Van Horn is trying to figure out his 27-man SEC roster with the first conference series set to open this weekend against Missouri. Casey Opitz is going to give him some versatility.

“We might be able to carry one or two more pitchers this year,” said Van Horn, the 17th-year Arkansas coach. “Casey gives us something because he can play a lot of positions.”

Opitz is the starting catcher, with Zack Plunkett giving the Hogs a more than adequate backup. Opitz has started nine games, Plunkett five. That’s important because Opitz can do everything but pitch or play shortstop.

Van Horn told the Swatter’s Club on Monday that Opitz works at about every position on some days at practice.

“He practices at first, second, third and also takes flies in the outfield,” Van Horn said. “That’s going to be big as we figure out our SEC roster.”

Van Horn said he’s often carried 14 position players and 13 pitchers on his 27-man roster for the SEC weekends. He’s likely going to flip that to 14 pitchers this season with Opitz providing the insurance as a utility man.

Opitz also provides some versatility at the plate. He’s a switch hitter. That’s important late in games if Plunkett is catching. Opitz could pinch hit, like he did late in Saturday's against Louisiana Tech.

Van Horn said Opitz has been “incredible” throwing out runners. He’s at 60 percent. MLB catchers average 30 percent.

Van Horn was asked for big impressions on the first 14 games of the season, aside from the fact that the No. 10 Hogs are 12-2 ahead of the midweek two-game series with Western Illinois. First pitch on Tuesday is set for 6:30 p.m.

“The surprise has been that our younger guys have played a little bit better than I figured,” he said. “I had been concerned because we only returned three position players. The new guys have done a little bit better job at the plate than you might have thought.

“Our returning pitchers have done a pretty good job. We had a bad day Saturday, but sometimes you need a loss. It can be good. It might turn out that way.”

Van Horn was asked how things have worked out with 5-8 Trevor Ezell playing first base?

“There are times when you know that might be a problem for ones up here,” Van Horn said, extending his left arm above his head. “But it’s not going to bother him on grounders, or on throws in the dirt. Really, he’s been pretty good. I can remember LSU went with a 5-7 first baseman one year.”

Ezell, who had offseason shoulder surgery, still might end up somewhere else.

“His arm is getting better,” Van Horn said. “He had an error this weekend and it’s just because he rushed a throw. He’s looking better in practice.”

Van Horn confirmed that pitcher Jacob Burton will be suspended four games after an ejection Saturday for beaning a Louisiana Tech batter one pitch after a home run.

“It was an umpire who had been in the minor leagues for a long time,” said Van Horn, noting that there are seldom cases of pitchers throwing at hitters in college baseball.

Van Horn appealed the suspension on Monday, but got nowhere.

“He’s going to be out until Saturday,” Van Horn said. “The bad part is that he has to leave the stadium during these four games.

“It was unintentional. I don’t think you even see that much in college baseball, someone intentionally throwing at someone’s head. If you did that as a coach, you’d lose your job. I don’t know anyone who does that.

“I told our league officials that the two coaches are friends and that we wouldn’t ever do that. I guess it’s just the umpire’s decision. To be honest, the teams were not even chippy or anything until the umpire did that. I thought he stirred things up.”

Van Horn said he talked to Tech coach Lane Burroughs, one of his former assistants, after the Saturday incident and again before Sunday’s game.

“He knew that was not intentional,” Van Horn said.

Arkansas pitchers hit four Tech batters in the game. One of the problems in the game was control because of winds gusting to nearly 40 mph.

“You have that on windy days, struggling with control,” he said. “You can’t get your balance. And, then you lose your release point. It’s really hard to pitch on that kind of a day. That’s always a problem on windy days and it was really gusting.”

Van Horn said Patrick Wicklander would start Tuesday against Western Illinois. Wicklander was scheduled for long relief in Sunday’s series finale against Louisiana Tech, but didn’t pitch when the Hogs cruised to an 11-0 victory.

“He won’t go long,” Van Horn said, noting the freshman lefty was still a big part of weekend plans as SEC play begins.

Freshman Elijah Trest is the likely starter on Wednesday, but that would be a bullpen day as the Hogs get closer to the weekend.

“We’ll do it like one inning, two innings, one inning, like that,” Van Horn said.

Trest pitched for the first time this season against Tech on Sunday. He struck out three batters in his one inning of work.

Trest came to school as a two-way player, but is strictly a pitcher now. He was told in January that he wouldn’t play other than to pitch. Van Horn said he’s finally ready for game action.

“He had two bullpens inside and you normally do better there,” he said. “So the previous week, we had a simulated game with him on the mound against four or five guys who hadn’t been getting at-bats.”

That’s when the coaching staff decided to pull the redshirt on Trest. That makes 16 pitchers who have been in games so far. And, that gives Van Horn more options, especially with the versatility of Opitz.

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