Fisher steps up in season opener


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn wanted to slide Dominic Ficociello from first base to second for a number of reasons this season.

One of the biggest was so the Razorbacks could get sophomore Eric Fisher’s bat in the lineup. The sophomore showed what it could mean in Friday’s opener.

Fisher led the top-ranked Razorbacks to a 9-1 win against Western Illinois in front of an announced crowd of 4,734 in Baum Stadium. He went 2-for-4 with a home run and three RBIs, hitting in the cleanup spot as Ficociello watched from the dugout because of a strained oblique muscle that made him a gameday scratch.

“I just made sure not to put any extra pressure on myself,” Fisher said of his first game since 2011. “I just made sure when I went to the plate to relax and do my job.”

Fisher, who was originally scheduled to hit fifth Friday, moved up into the four-hole after Ficociello strained the muscle fielding a ground ball before the game. The injury will keep the team’s top returning hitter out for at least the weekend, but Fisher didn’t waste any time showing Van Horn the Hogs would be fine Friday.

Fisher hit a two-run single in the first inning to start Arkansas’ productive day at the plate. He added to it in his next at-bat, sending a pitch from Western Illinois right-hander Nick Smith into the bullpen in right field to give the Razorbacks a 3-0 lead.

It was the first home run of Fisher’s Arkansas career. The sophomore, who redshirted in 2012 largely because Ficociello was entrenched at first base, also kicked off a five-run inning that eventually ended Smith’s outing.

“He got a fastball out over the plate and did what you’re supposed to do with a pitch like that,” Van Horn said. “Their pitcher didn’t leave too many in there like that. He pitched away all day and didn’t give us too much to hit.

“He left one over the plate and (Fisher) hit it out of the park. That was good to see.”

Ficociello’s replacement, senior Jacob Mahan, went 2-for-2 with an RBI in the eighth spot Friday. Third baseman Brian Anderson also went 2-for-2 with an RBI.

The three players led Arkansas to an 11-hit debut.

But Van Horn said he wasn’t necessarily concerned with the hit or run totals in the opener. He wanted to see the Razorbacks make Smith, who beat Georgia last season, work throughout his start. Smith (0-1) threw 88 pitches in three innings Friday.

Six Western Illinois pitchers combined to walk 11 batters.

“We had a lot of guys foul off a lot of pitches,” Van Horn said. “We put together what we call quality at-bats, where you’re seeing six to seven pitches. Taking your walks. Making solid contact. We did a good job of that (Friday).”

The support was more than enough for an Arkansas pitching staff that combined to allow one run on three hits.

Starter Ryne Stanek, a preseason All-American and Golden Spikes Award candidate, admitted he didn’t have his best stuff in his season debut. But Stanek (1-0) allowed just one run on two hits and struck out four in four innings of work.

Stanek’s only blemish came in the fourth when Western Illinois center fielder Dan Dispensa hit a solo home run to left field to cut Arkansas’ lead to 7-1.

“I wasted a lot of fastballs and left a lot of pitches up,” Stanek said. “My stuff was OK. I just didn’t locate where I was supposed to as often as I should have.”

But the Razorbacks got solid relief pitching from freshman Trey Killian and senior Tyler Wright through the final five innings Friday.

Killian — who Van Horn hopes to mold into a dependable starter this season — retired nine straight in relief of Stanek. Wright ran into some minor trouble in the ninth by allowing a single and a walk, but finished the game by getting Western Illinois first baseman Steve Kedroski to ground out to second base.

It helped Arkansas wrap up its 19th straight win in a season opener. The Razorbacks also improved to 43-11 in season openers since 1960.

The teams will meet again at 12:05 p.m. today. Right-hander Barrett Astin will start for the Hogs. Western Illinois will send right-hander Tyler Willman to the mound.

“We played really well the first day out,” Van Horn said.