Van Horn details plan for first weekend of Arkansas baseball

Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn watches practice Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Andy Shupe/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — University of Arkansas baseball Coach Dave Van Horn revealed Wednesday his starting rotation for the season-opening series against James Madison and the likely top of his batting order with a couple of small surprises.

Van Horn announced junior left-hander Hagen Smith would be the opening day starter as expected for Friday’s 3 p.m. game at Baum-Walker Stadium.

The next two games will feature junior right-hander Brady Tygart and senior left-hander Mason Molina as starters, a slight change to the order of use during preseason scrimmages. Freshman left-hander Colin Fisher will get the call for Monday’s series finale after sophomore Ben Bybee and freshman Gabe Gaeckle were under strong consideration to get starting nods.

“In how many years, maybe never, I’ve been able to tell OVERSET FOLLOWS:you a rotation, so hopefully they’ll stay healthy all year and we’ll be able to figure this one out,” Van Horn said to open his Wednesday news conference.

The choice of Smith (8-2, 3.64 ERA in 2023), whose fastball has touched 100 mph during preseason workouts, made sense. The 6-3, 225-pounder from Bullard, Texas, started last year’s season-opening 3-2 win over Texas at Arlington, Texas.

Molina, who was 6-2 with a 3.67 ERA at Texas Tech last season, had been opposing Smith in weekend-opening scrimmages during camp. Tygart (3-1, 3.20 in 25 1/3 innings) had been pitching on the day after those two.

“Just figured, I don’t know, I think left-right-left,” Van Horn said in the setting of the rotation order. “It really doesn’t matter, and it could change. Just maybe the two guys who have been in our program the longest.

“And you could go through a lot of things, like maybe how they pitched. But I think they’re pretty equal. They’re both really good. We’ll go that way, but [the chosen order was] no particular reason.”

Smith will be opposed by 6-1 sophomore right-hander Todd Mozoki (1-4, 4.89) in the opener.

“Todd was used last year in several different roles,” James Madison Coach Marlin Ikenberry told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “He actually started probably from the midway point on in the rotation.

“He’s a fastball, slider, change-up guy, and can pitch to both sides of the plate. A little unorthodox being his fastball’s got some movement to it. But just a pitch-ability who is not going to overpower with velocity but his movement kind of plays into our … we’ve got to play good defense behind him.”

Ikenberry said he’s still in the decision-making process for his Saturday starter and that veteran right-hander Ryan Murphy (5-4, 4.89), a 6-4 junior, would start Sunday against the Hogs. The Vienna, Va., native pitched at James Madison High School before signing with James Madison University.

“He’s a four-pitch mix,” Ikenberry said, “a fastball, curveball, slider, change-up guy, similar to the pitch-ability of Todd. He just doesn’t have the movement on the fastball that Todd has, the sink that Todd has. He’s been kind of a mainstay in our rotation for two years now.”

Ikenberry said he knows who his Monday starter will be, but he’s just not ready to announce it.

The Dukes, who were 31-25 in their first season in the Sun Belt Conference last year, are scheduled to fly from Washington, D.C. to Tulsa today, then bus into town for the series.

Van Horn said in light of second baseman Peyton Stovall’s foot injury. he would likely make a rare move in the batting order by putting a catcher in the leadoff spot. Stovall was on target to e be the Hogs’ leadoff hitter, followed by right-handed hitting catcher Hudson White, left-handed hitting right fielder Kendall Diggs, right-handed hitting shortstop Weihwa Aloy and lefty first baseman Ben McLaughlin.

“We’re just going to move everybody up,” Van Horn said. “We’ll probably hit our catcher leadoff. Might be the first time I’ve ever done that. I know that [Craig] Biggio was a pretty good leadoff hitter in college back in the day.

“White’s a tough out if he’s catching. If he’s not catching, then we’ll flip it around. But if White’s not catching, he’ll be DHing on Friday or Saturday. That’s what we’re looking like.

“Probably I’ll go left after that and then right, then left and then pretty much right after that. If Stovall was in the lineup, he might be hitting leadoff for us and then you go left-right-left-right-left-right probably and then you shuffle a few right-handers at the end.”

Additionally, Van Horn said, Peyton Holt is expected to shift over from third base to second base to open the season in Stovall’s spot with Richmond transfer Jared Sprague-Lott likely to start at third base.

Missouri transfer Ty Wilmsmeyer is on target to start in center field while some combination of Jayson Jones, Ross Lovich and Will Edmundson will be deployed in left field.