State of the Hogs: Strengths, weaknesses visible in big comeback

Arkansas shortstop Jax Biggers dives for third base during a game against Louisiana Tech on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Ruston, La. Biggers had four hits, including a home run as the Razorbacks won 13-10 after trailing by nine runs in the second inning.

— It's too early to make season predictions for the Arkansas baseball season, but there was some good stuff in the first two true road games of the season.

The Hogs split two games at Louisiana Tech this week before moving on for three neutral-site games against good teams at the Frisco (Texas) College Baseball Classic. This might be an improved bunch of Razorbacks.

But make no mistake about it, Tech's Bulldogs are pretty good, too. They have a veteran lineup and it was a true road environment, something akin to what life will be like around the SEC later this spring. It was exactly what Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn had wanted when he made up the schedule.

The Hogs (7-1) got two competitive games against a fine team with capacity crowds both Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tech won the opener, 4-3, on Tuesday with things getting interesting in the ninth when Carson Shaddy cracked a two-run homer. But the real plus was the finale Wednesday when the Hogs rallied from down 10-1 to win, 13-10, behind five home runs and brilliant relief pitching from Jake Reindl and Barrett Loseke.

There is nothing better than coming from behind to build some confidence in a team. To do it on the road is even better.

There still are question marks about the pitching. Losing Keaton McKinney to Tommy John surgery was a blow. He was expected to be a weekend starter and is a veteran SEC pitcher.

Isaiah Campbell is still iffy after a sore triceps in his pitching arm developed in late January. Campbell was thought to be the ace of the staff and a potential Friday starter. He's free of soreness now, but it may be deep in the SEC season before he's able to pitch long into games as a starter.

But I like this team. Pro scouts love the potential, too. They point to a bunch of salty newcomers playing in the field as a sign of solid recruiting. Center fielder Dominic Fletcher is a stud. First baseman Jordan McFarland is another potential star.

The part of the team I like the most is at catcher and shortstop. The Hogs are good at both of those spots. There are plenty of college teams with holes in the batting order – sometimes two – because they can't sacrifice defense at those two spots.

We've seen that Arkansas in some years.

Grant Koch is a solid catcher, but he's going to be one of the SEC's best and most powerful hitters. He had three hits Wednesday to put his average at .389.

Jax Biggers may hit as well as Michael Bernal, the three-year veteran the Hogs lost at shortstop. That's saying a lot because Bernal could hit. But Biggers may be better than Bernal on defense. His arm is just OK, but he's got great range, can pick tough chances and has as quick of a release as I've seen for the Hogs in many years. Biggers had four hits Wednesday.

Biggers is hitting .308 - fourth-best on the team. Better than that, he has not committed an error in 29 chances in the first eight games.

The best news: both are sophomores. Koch played some as a true freshman last season. Biggers was a star as a freshman at Cisco (Texas) Junior College. He has three years of eligibility at Arkansas. However, both have potential at the next level.

Biggers was a known prospect when he came out of Missouri City, Texas. His father coached baseball at Lamar in 1994-97. But Biggers didn't concentrate on baseball until last year at Cisco. He was two-time an all-conference slot receiver for the Ridge Point High School team.

“I saw him in high school and thought he just needed to mature a little bit, get a little stronger,” Van Horn said. “Everyone knew him and his dad. That one year in junior college did it for him.”

The Hogs are not full strength just yet. Obviously, they have high hopes for Campbell, a 6-5, 230-pound beast with a live arm. They need him in the rotation to take some pressure off the bullpen.

They also are excited about the prospects for infielder Jared Gates. He was hit by a pitch in early February and suffered a broken hamate bone in his hand. He's doing well in rehab and might be back in a couple of weeks. Van Horn called him the team's best hitter in the preseason.

Gates appeared to have won the first base job in the preseason workouts, but he also can play third. He hit .438 last year in junior college as his region's player of the year.

With McFarland rolling, it's not clear where Gates will play, but he's versatile enough to move somewhere besides first. McFarland can play on the infield or in the outfield.

The key may be where Van Horn elects to play Carson Shaddy in the field. He's already made four errors in eight games. He made a critical error at third base in the Tuesday loss to jump start Tech's only scoring inning. He's played second base, third and was also used at catcher to rest Koch in a runaway last weekend against Bryant.

Could he end up at designated hitter?

Van Horn had hoped Shaddy would take hold at second base. He's had flashes of solid play, but he's booted too many grounders. It was a sore arm that caused most of the errors the last two seasons when third base was the project. The arm seems fine now.

If it doesn't work out at second for Shaddy, there is a clear option with freshman Jaxon Williams. He has five hits and 10 RBI in 10 at-bats, and has shown an ability to spray the ball to all fields.

OK, how will the pitching work out? Dominic Taccolini didn't have it Wednesday. His ERA is 12.00 after four appearances.

Trevor Stephan might be a find out of the JUCO ranks. He's only pitched for three years and has great potential. He's been good in the first two weekends.

Blaine Knight has had one good start and another on the average side. Josh Alberius has been rock solid, including Tuesday when he struck out a career-high seven in 5 1/3 innings.

But they need more to step up, especially from the left side. Weston Rogers and Evan Lee have not turned any heads as the top options from the left side. Lee gave up three runs - including two home runs - in his first appearance Wednesday.

It will be a long year if the Hogs ask the offense to rally too many times. They came back from down 5-1 on Sunday against Bryant before exploding for a 16-6 victory. Obviously, the rally from 10-1 is unprecedented for the Van Horn era at Arkansas.

It's nice to know you can do it, but there will be some SEC teams that have too much in the back end of the bullpen to pull off those kind of comebacks.

I expect the pitching to settle in eventually. There is nothing to suggest that Wes Johnson won't do at Arkansas what he did at Dallas Baptist and Mississippi State.

If not, the Hogs might have to hit a lot more home runs.