Last week the Arkansas baseball team completed their Fall World Series in four games as the Gray team beat the Cardinal team 3-1. Leading the Gray team was freshman outfielder Heston Kjerstad (.467, 2B, HR, 5 RBI) who showed why Dave Van Horn has been excited about the depth in the outfield this season. Jax Biggers showed no sign of slowing down after leading the Hogs in batting average last season, hitting .412 with four doubles and four RBI. Jared Gates finished with five hits while freshman outfielder Ben McClain homered and drove in four runs.
On the mound for the Gray team Jake Reindl, Isaiah Campbell, and freshman Caleb Bolden all turned in shutout starts to earn wins for their team. Reindl gave up two hits and struck out two in 5.2 innings, Campbell struck out five, walked two and gave up four hits in five innings, and Bolden went four innings, surrendering four hits and two walks with one strike out. Matt Cronin was solid out of the bullpen throwing five innings in three relief appearances, striking out seven batters.
Jack Kenley started the series with a bang for the Cardinal team. He hit for the cycle in the first game and drove in five runs for the series. Evan Lee and Jordan McFarland paced the team with five and four hits, respectively, with McFarland also driving in three runs. Dominic Fletcher finished with four hits of his own.
Lee earned the lone win for the Cardinal team in the first game pitching six innings of shutout baseball, allowing only three hits and one walk while striking out four. Left handed freshman Jackson Rutledge was the only other Cardinal pitcher not to allow a run as he registered five walks and two strike outs in three innings. Blaine Knight and Barrett Loseke were both touched for two earned runs in their short starts.
There were many positive things to take away from the series, namely that there were no serious injuries during the games. However, Eric Cole, Carson Shaddy and Luke Bonfield were all held out of the series with non season-threatening injuries.
A trio of freshmen gave other notable performances during the series. McClain made the most of his three hits by driving in four runs with a double and a home run, and Brady Disher and Casey Opitz each hit a home run and drove in three.
Along with hitting for the cycle, Kenley flashed some leather in game one and has given Van Horn plenty of reason to consider penciling him into the infield when the season starts. Van Horn was very pleased to see how well his team played defense as a whole, making impressive plays but also fielding at a high percentage.
To see Lee perform as well as he did both on offense and pitching is a step toward fulfilling the vision that Van Horn had for him last year as a freshman. Several times he complimented Lee last year for his mental toughness, baseball IQ, and ability to throw strikes and make solid contact. It seems Lee will be a two way player who could find himself toeing the rubber to start some weekend games this season.
Now that the Fall World Series is over I predict the opening day lineup and pitching rotation will look like this:
1. SS Jax Biggers (S)
2. LF Luke Bonfield (R)
3. CF Dominic Fletcher (L)
4. C Grant Koch (R)
5. RF Heston Kjerstad (L)
6. 2B Carson Shaddy (R)
7. DH Evan Lee (L)
8. 1B Jordan McFarland (R)
9. 3B Jack Kenley (L)
1. Blaine Knight (R)
2. Isaiah Campbell (R)
3. Kacey Murphy (L)
Jake Reindl (R)
Bryce Bonnin (R)
Evan Lee (L)
Barrett Loseke (R)
Matt Cronin (L)
Jackson Rutledge (R)
Cody Scroggins (R)
This team is deeper than any other in recent history, which will make it difficult to predict who will separate from the competition when games begin. Practice can only tell us so much, but it will be a good problem to have when attempting to solidify a consistent lineup by the start of conference play.
First and third will be two positions to keep an eye on as there are a hand full of players that could contribute there. Last season we saw Hunter Wilson succeed early at the plate while showing solid defense before suffering a bone bruise that kept him out most of the season. I expect him to challenge Kenley and Gates at third.
McFarland has shown that he is a high ceiling hitter who could play some third if necessary, but will likely be called upon to fill the shoes of Chad Spanberger at first base. Van Horn has also mentioned trying out Bonfield at first, though it is more likely to see him in left field when not designated hitting.
Speaking of the DH, Van Horn will be able to utilize this spot to hit four of his many good hitting outfielders. Cole has struggled in his first two seasons to find consistency at the plate early, but has demonstrated that he can be a middle of the lineup hitter. Cole Turney (Arkansas’ top signee in the freshman class) is out with a shoulder injury until around mid season. Once healthy he is expected to slide into the lineup as a plus outfielder that can hit for average and power.
Getting Campbell back this season will be a huge shot in the arm. For the Razorbacks to host a Regional Tournament last season without him spoke volumes to their offense. Imagine what last season would have looked like with Campbell complimenting Knight and Trevor Stephan. This season we can expect the pitching staff to take another large step forward from the abysmal 2016 season. With Knight and Campbell locks for starting Friday and Saturday nights, the third spot in the rotation could belong to Murphy or Lee if Van Horn prefers to start a left-hander, or Reindl could slide into a different role after throwing the most innings in relief last year.
Many newcomers will compete for innings this season and Bonnin looks to be the most ready of the bunch with the right handed Rutledge capable of making an impact. Having eight left handed pitchers on the fall roster makes it interesting to see who makes it to the spring squad. I believe left handed redshirt freshman Jackson Rutledge has the best chance among the first year players to join returners Murphy, Lee, Cronin and Weston Rogers.
With fall practice coming to a close we look forward to seeing who makes the roster when the spring semester begins. Van Horn has some tough decisions ahead with the number three recruiting class coming in to meet a regional host team that lost only two position players and one starting pitcher.
Arkansas received some very good news outside of the series from redshirt junior Keaton McKinney who has been rehabbing his elbow since having Tommy John surgery in February. McKinney, who dedicated this past summer to a rigorous workout schedule, threw off the mound for the first time since his injury. This is big news as he is ahead of his rehabilitation schedule, though it is still not certain that he will be ready to pitch when the season begins.
Prior to the series was the news that redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Kevin Kopps will miss this season after having Tommy John surgery. Although he will be missed in 2018 there is a good chance he can rehab and be ready by the start of the 2019 season.
The Diamond Hogs also landed a major commitment for the class of 2020 this fall in Greenbrier, AR third baseman Cayden Wallace (6-1, 200 pounds). Wallace is rated the number 18 player in his class nationally and chose Arkansas over TCU and Vanderbilt.