Loaded Arkansas baseball lineup begins quest for Omaha today

Arkansas infielder Peyton Holt makes a throw during a scrimmage Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Andy Shupe/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — Those who follow college baseball believe the Arkansas Razorbacks could have just the kind of deep, talented and balanced roster that could result in yet another push to the College World Series this season.

The story of whether the University of Arkansas makes a fourth appearance at the CWS in Omaha, Neb., in the span of six seasons will be written over the course of the next four months. 

In the meantime, the defending SEC co-champion Razorbacks (43-18 in 2023) will begin the season with a chilly opening day assignment Friday against James Madison University (31-25).

More from WholeHogSports: How to watch, listen to Arkansas-James Madison

Junior 6-2 left-hander Hagen Smith (8-2, 3.64 ERA) has drawn his second consecutive Opening-Day start, and he’ll be opposed by 6-1 sophomore righty Todd Mozoki (1-4, 4.89) at Baum-Walker Stadium. The first game of a scheduled four-game set will commence with a projected temperature of about 45 degrees at first pitch. The game was originally scheduled for 3 p.m., but it was moved up to 2 p.m. to account for a temperature drop as the evening wears on.

“Opening weekend, it’s always exciting to finally get to play somebody else,” Coach Dave Van Horn, who is entering his 22nd season at Arkansas, said Thursday on The Morning Rush radio show on KAKS-FM, 99.5, in Northwest Arkansas. “The players are tired of scrimmaging and practicing. They want to see what’s up and see how they do.”

Arkansas is a consensus top-four pick in the preseason polls, including No. 4 in the USA Today Baseball Coaches Poll, the ranking of record for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The Razorbacks added transfer left-hander Mason Molina to a pitching staff that featured a good mix of returning talent like Smith, junior right-hander Brady Tygart (3-1, 3.20) and senior right-hander Will McEntire (8-3, 5.07) with younger arms such as lefty Colin Fisher, who is slated to start Monday’s noon finale.

Ninth-year James Madison Coach Marlin Ikenberry was asked about his scouting report on the Arkansas pitchers.

“We set the pitching machines up as close as possible and as hard as possible,” Ikenberry said with a laugh. “I do know they’re outstanding pitchers and it’s a great challenge for us. … Really the biggest thing in seeing these experienced arms is it makes the games afterward a little bit easier after seeing these elite arms.”

In the field, veterans like right fielder Kendall Diggs (.299, 12 home runs, 63 RBI), first baseman Ben McLaughlin (.346, 2, 14), infielder Peyton Holt (.392, 2, 17) and second baseman Peyton Stovall (.253, 5, 31), who will open the season on the sideline with a broken foot, will serve as anchors for Arkansas. They’ll be complemented by incoming transfers like catcher Hudson White, shortstop Weihwa Aloy, center fielder Ty Wilmsmeyer and infielder Jared Sprague-Lott.

“I think the expectation is that you’re older and you’re experienced and we should be pretty good right out of the block,” Van Horn said during a Wednesday news conference. “I can guarantee every team in our league thinks the same thing, because every team in our league right now says they’re going to a regional and they have a chance to play in Omaha. Maybe talent-wise that’s true, but you’ve got to play the games.”

Stovall’s injury, which is expected to keep him out four to six weeks, has led to an infield shift, with Holt moving from third base to second base and projected utility ace Sprague-Lott opening at third.

Van Horn has touted several position battles through preseason scrimmages — mainly at left field, first base and catcher — saying the performances at those positions will show the coaching staff how to allot playing time.

“I told the team yesterday the lineup will change throughout the year,” Van Horn said. “Just because you make the starting lineup Day 1 doesn’t mean you’re going to be there in the 15th game. So you’ve got to keep working.”

The Razorbacks battled through injuries to pitchers and position players alike last season to win the SEC West for the fourth time in five years and claim a share of the overall SEC crown for the second time in three years. They were picked by SEC coaches to repeat this season, just ahead of defending CWS champion LSU.

James Madison, which is located in Harrisonburg, Va., is coming off a seventh-place finish in its inaugural season in the Sun Belt Conference and was picked to finish 10th in the 14-team league.

The Dukes hit .298 as a team last season to rank 52nd in the country and averaged 7.4 runs per game, good for 72nd in Division I.

Ikenberry said he hired Mike Roberts, a former player of his at VMI who played in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, to add a different voice to their offensive attack.

“He really emphasized putting the ball in play and not striking out,” Ikenberry said. “I like our offense in the sense of where we were two years ago to where we were last year to where we are today. We’ve gotten better. That’s something where we preach to our guys to create pressure, to not strike out and put the ball in play and really force the other team to make plays. We saw the benefit of that last year.”

The returning standouts for the Dukes are led by junior outfielder Fenwick Trimble (.342, 13, 52), a preseason All-Sun Belt pick who will shift from left field to center field. Shortstop Mason Dunnaway (.312, 2, 31), second baseman Mike Mancini (.284, 2, 36), utility player Jacob Steinberg (.355, 2, 19) and catcher Jason Schiavone (.224, 9, 34) are key returning players paired with transfer outfielder Brendan O’Donnell, who hit .244 with 14 home runs and 53 RBI at Rider last year.

“Really good stats,” Van Horn said of Trimble. “Just a tough out. You look at his numbers … he’s the guy they probably built their lineup around. He had a tremendous year last year.

“Really, you try to watch batting practice the first day and see if … your visual, your eyes you put on them, it looks like what you’ve read.”

Ikenberry said he likes the experience his team will bring into the opening series.

“I think our position player crew is a fairly older group,” he said. “Not having to technically have to play the younger group early is really beneficial. We’re returning basically our middle of the field.

“We’re lucky we don’t have to play a bunch of freshmen all over the field. The pitching staff is fairly older with some young guys sprinkled in. I feel good about our experience coming into Arkansas.”