FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn has made a few adjustments in preparation for 2014.
It was evident during the Razorbacks’ media day last Friday, when Van Horn clutched a roster sheet before sitting down to preview the season.
“Yeah, I’m still learning some players,” Van Horn said. “I know who is going to play. I know their names. That’s probably the main thing.”
Van Horn and the Razorbacks begin a season loaded with curiosity when the 25th-ranked Razorbacks open a three-game series against Appalachian State in Baum Stadium at 3:05 p.m. today. Arkansas is counting on a new-look roster after last year’s 39-22 finish, which included a disappointing end for a team that was ranked No. 1 in preseason polls and boasted the best earned run average in college baseball (1.89).
Veterans like Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin, Colby Suggs, Randall Fant and Brandon Moore have moved on to professional baseball and the uncertainty has led to lower expectations for a program that has reached 11 straight NCAA Tournaments.
But Arkansas pitcher Jalen Beeks said the Razorbacks won’t let that string of success end even though Arkansas is predicted to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference Western Division standings. The new group still has big aspirations.
“Anybody can be the hero this year,” said Beeks, who will get his chance by starting on the mound after appearing in 29 games as a reliever last season. “Anybody can be the star. It doesn’t really matter. But I know whatever happens, this team is very tight-knit and we’re going to succeed.”
Arkansas has plenty to sort out before it can be accomplished.
It begins on the mound, where the Razorbacks are trying to replace their weekend starting rotation and restock the back end of its bullpen. Beeks and Chris Oliver, who also worked in a relief role last season, will get the first chance to audition for starting jobs this weekend. Freshman Alex Phillips will make his debut Sunday.
“There’s a giant difference, I know, between high school and college pitching,” Phillips said. “But I feel like these guys I’ve pitched against for a long time have helped me this fall, so I feel like whatever Appalachian State has to offer, I feel like I’ve been throwing to a little bit better against these guys that I’ve faced.”
The starters aren’t the only roles to sort through. Arkansas needs to retool a bullpen that was vital to its success on the mound last season and will be without Beeks and Oliver for at least the first weekend because of their new role as starters. Another returning pitcher, sophomore Trey Killian, is serving a six-game suspension for an NCAA rules violation and won’t be available until later this month.
But Killian said the Arkansas staff remains confident it will learn quickly.
“We lost a lot,” Killian said. “Those were some amazing arms. But I think we’re going to be all right this year. … The expectations of last year, I don’t know if those are really possible to live up to. But we’re going to do our best. We’re working hard every single day. We’ll see what we can do when the season comes around.”
Arkansas knows it can help the young staff grow by improving at the plate after struggling to score runs throughout the 2013 season.
The Razorbacks hit .260 and averaged 4.9 runs a game, which ranked 213th and 190th, respectively, in the NCAA. It played a big role in Arkansas’ regular season frustrations and the early exit in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional.
“We had holes in our lineup last year,” said Arkansas catcher Jake Wise, who hit .212 with three home runs and 23 RBIs last season. “We didn’t have a leadoff guy. The bottom of the order was a little weak. I think this year we have a couple of guys that can lead off and we’re going to be tough on through nine.”
Wise, second baseman Brian Anderson, outfielders Tyler Spoon and Joe Serrano, first baseman Eric Fisher and shortstop Brett McAfee all return after playing in starting roles last season. Van Horn believes the experience at the plate will play a big role in Arkansas’ improvement along with new energy provided by first-year hitting coach Tony Vitello, who replaced Todd Butler in the offseason.
He also said Arkansas has more depth and athleticism. It should help this season.
“I think we can handle it,” Spoon said. “We’ve got guys this year like Wise, Anderson, McAfee that are back and just confident as all get out. … I think a lot of people outside of here don’t expect us to do well, but there’s a good feeling in the locker room. I feel like we’re going to have a good season with a lot of experience back.”
Van Horn acknowledged Arkansas missed an opportunity last season after failing to meet preseason expectations. It’s not often a pitching staff of that caliber comes along, after all, and the Razorbacks couldn’t capitalize on it with a run to Omaha.
He’s hoping the opposite happens this season. Arkansas isn’t considered a national title contender entering the season because of the uncertainty, but he wouldn’t rule out a successful run with a team eager to show it is better than advertised.
“We have a lot to prove,” Van Horn said. “We’re not picked to do a whole lot. … But I think that within that locker room the guys know we have a chance to be good. And we could be real good. This is a close team. And this is a hard-working team now.”
No one is expecting a smooth ride, of course.
There will be bumps along the way during the 56-game schedule. But Beeks said Arkansas believes the road can still lead to the College World Series.
“We’re ready to go and prove people wrong,” Beeks said. “We’ve been cooped up here in the snow and stuff this winter. We’re just ready to go out there and play and let our play talk for itself. I think we’re really talented.”