State of the Hogs: Arkansas still has lots of pitching

Arkansas pitcher Marshall Denton throws during a scrimmage on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— Pitching has dominated over the nine preseason scrimmages for the Arkansas baseball team.

“The pitching has handed it to the hitters so far,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said after visiting with fans at the Swatter's Club on Monday.

It's like that a lot of times in January and February as hitters adjust to breaking pitches against live pitching, but Van Horn said his pitching has been better than usual so far in 2019.

I've heard that story from baseball coaches forever, but Van Horn thinks the Hogs look good on the mound despite losing a long list of top-level pitchers from last year's team.

Gone are Blaine Knight, Kacey Murphy, Barrett Loseke, Jake Reindl and Evan Lee. All made at least 15 appearances in games last season.

Still, Van Horn said he feels good about “seven or eight” pitchers slated to work in the opening weekend. The Hogs play host to Eastern Illinois three times beginning at 3 p.m. Friday. Games are also slated for 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

Van Horn didn't list those seven or eight guys by name, but I'd guess them to be Isaiah Campbell, Matt Cronin, Connor Noland, Jacob Kostyshock, Patrick Wicklander, Caden Monke, Cody Scroggins, Kole Ramage, Kevin Kopps, Marshall Denton and Zebulon Vermillion.

Oops, that's 11!

There are more that might work their way into meaningful time on the mound, too.

That may sound scary for a team that seemed to lose a lot of pitching from a 48-21 team that came within one out of a national championship.

Scary is the word Van Horn described for what happened Sunday to Denton, a right-handed relief specialist who showed again that lefties can solve his side-arm delivery.

Van Horn has checked on Denton all weekend after lefty hitting star Heston Kjerstad lined a pitch that first glanced off the pitcher's glove and then slammed into the side of his neck.

“If it was 1 inch up, it probably breaks his jaw,” Van Horn said. “An inch over, it might have been worse, to the wind pipe. As it was, I wasn't sure he was breathing when I got to him.”

Van Horn sprinted out of the dugout and called for the trainer.

“I texted him again last night,” Van Horn said. “I just wanted to keep making sure he was all right. He's fine.”

Denton is not only fine, but he's good to pitch several times a week. That's the nature of his side-arm delivery that protects his arm for outings on back-to-back days. But it will probably not be against lefties.

“He's going to just pitch to guys on the right side,” Van Horn said. “He's added velocity and he's really good against right handers. You might see him just for a batter or an inning, and he might come back the next day for one batter. He has a rubber arm. It doesn't get sore.”

The story on Denton, who previously went by the name Angus, is that Van Horn feels badly that he pitched him at all as a true freshman in 2017. And, they made a decision to redshirt him last year to bulk up a slender frame.

“We probably shouldn't have pitched him that first year, but what sitting out last year allowed was for him to get a lot stronger,” Van Horn said. “Sitting out was good for him.”

The Hogs get back another who sat out last season, junior right-hander Kevin Kopps. Kopps was a standout two years ago, but went down with an elbow injury in the fall of 2017. He sat out last year with Tommy John surgery.

“He's not all the way back yet,” Van Horn said. “He's got his velocity back, but his command is not there. That's usually the way it works with Tommy John.

“So this first weekend, he won't pitch much, maybe an inning. And, then next week at Southern Cal, we might use him another inning. He's going to be fine, but he needs more time. He's had a little bit of a setback as far as his command.”

The other injury update concerns Trevor Ezell, a transfer infielder from Southeast Missouri State. He's still trying to get his throwing arm right after shoulder surgery in the summer.

“He had seven staples in his shoulder and it's just not all the way back yet,” Van Horn said. “He can probably play first base and eventually he's going to be able to play second or maybe in the outfield. We know he can at least be a designated hitter, too. But I'll tell you this much, he's got a first baseman's glove.”

Christian Franklin may start in left field on opening day.

“We may put him in left the first day,” Van Horn said. “He's really good on defense and can steal a base. We need to get his bat going.”

It sounds like others need to get their bats going. Van Horn said Kjerstad is off to a slow start. Casey Martin started fast at the plate over the first two weekends, but cooled last weekend.

“I think he was really good until last week, but the pitchers caught up to him last weekend,” Van Horn said. “He didn't adjust to breaking pitches and it was a little bit of a setback from the way he started.”

Along with Ezell, another newcomer expected to play a lot early is junior college transfer Matt Goodheart. The Magnolia product by way of San Jacinto Community College could play left, first or DH.

“He's got bat speed, pull power and can go the other way, too,” Van Horn said. “He hit one into the pond in the scrimmage last fall against Wichita State.

“There was a real nice at bat in one of our scrimmages. He went 12 pitches and it really ruined a pitcher. We got four runs off of him that inning.”

Van Horn said the Hogs recruited him out of high school, but suggested he would get more at bats last year at San Jacinto.

Goodheart probably wouldn't have broken into a starting outfield last year that featured Eric Cole, Dominic Fletcher and Kjerstad.

Interestingly, Fletcher, Goodheart and Kjerstad all hit from the left side. The good news is that Ezell is a switch hitter. The Hogs are likely to have one more switch hitter in the lineup, versatile catcher Casey Optiz.

Opitz is the best receiver of the catching tandem with Zack Plunkett. But Opitz can also play first, second or the outfield.

Van Horn always raves about the intangibles and baseball knowledge that Optiz brings. The coach notes that Opitz has developed into a solid leader.

“He's just a baseball player,” Van Horn said. “His two older brothers are both coaching in pro baseball and he learned a lot from them, probably got beat up a little by them.”

As far as a batting order, Van Horn said he's not sure just yet and will experiment early.

“We may lost a midweek game because I'm trying something, but it might pay off later,” he said. “Just when you are headed to the parking lot trying to figure out what I've just done, know that it might win a game later in the season.”

While you are trudging to the parking lot after this weekend's game, count the number of pitchers you like that throw for the Hogs against Eastern Illinois.

If it's more than that “seven or eight” number that Van Horn referenced, it's likely going to be another good season.