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Baseball Preview: Diamond Hogs Poised for a Strong Season

Expectations are high in 2018.

The 2018 college baseball season is upon us, and the Diamond Hogs’ roster is chock-full of veterans to go along with the nation’s 3rd ranked recruiting class from a year ago. While the lineup will include many familiar faces, the weekend rotation will consist of a couple of pitchers returning from injury with high ceilings.

Starting Pitching

Preseason All SEC second teamer Blaine Knight turned down professional baseball last summer to return for his junior season. He will begin, and likely end, the season as the number one starter. This time last year Arkansas was primed with Knight and another promising sophomore, Isaiah Campbell, to be a solid 1-2 punch. When Campbell went down with an elbow injury early the Hogs had to turn to converted position player Trevor Stephan as their number two. While Stephan put together a campaign that got him drafted in the third round, it is hard not to think of what more Arkansas could have done with an arm like Campbell in the mix. But Campbell is back to full health this season and drawing praise from Van Horn and everyone else who has seen him throw this Spring.

Redshirt junior Keaton McKinney will take the mound as the third starting pitcher this weekend. McKinney was SEC All-Freshman and Louisville Slugger All American in 2015 when the Razorbacks went to the College World Series. After sitting out last season rehabbing a Tommy John surgery, McKinney has been said to be in the best shape of his career and throwing harder than ever.

Opening Weekend Rotation:

Jr Blaine Knight

R-So Isaiah Campbell

R-Jr Keaton McKinney

Position Players

The middle of the diamond returns the most production from the lineup a year ago. Catcher Grant Koch was voted to the first team Preseason All SEC team, while shortstop Jax Biggers and center fielder Dominic Fletcher were voted to the second team. Fifth year senior Carson Shaddy returns to man second base but he will be pushed by freshman Casey Martin for playing time. Koch has been tabbed as a top 5 catcher in the country and he should have more opportunities to get breaks from behind the plate in order to produce more throughout a full season. Freshman Casey Opitz will get plenty of opportunities to gain experience by spelling Koch occasionally throughout the season. Biggers led the team in batting average last year (.338) and Fletcher returns the most home runs after hitting 12 as a freshman. They may each start every game at their respective positions this season.

Van Horn has said that right field is Eric Cole’s position to lose this year. Cole, a junior, has shown promise in his first two seasons when not battling injuries. After gaining a lot of strength while maintaining his speed, he could be someone who makes a jump in production similar to what Chad Spanberger did last season. Luke Bonfield went undrafted after his junior season and brings a lot of experience and production to the middle of the lineup. He will look to play left field and DH like last season depending on the health and production of freshmen like Heston Kjerstad and Cole Turney.

Kjerstad has done nothing but impress since reaching campus and has vaulted himself into a likely opening day start in left field. Turney, the prize of the signing class, is dealing with an ankle injury that is keeping him from playing defense, but he will be available as a DH or pinch hitter to begin the season.

The biggest question marks all offseason have been the corner infield positions. Spanberger left a gaping hole at first base, and we could see three to four people rotated in early. Evan Lee’s hitting ability will likely give him the first shot there, but Jordan McFarland showed signs of consistent offensive ability at times last year as well. Any pick of Jared Gates, Jack Kenley or Hunter Wilson could occupy third base, but Gates is expected to get the opening day nod. Gates returns the most proven bat over more at bats, Kenley is the best glove option (and perhaps on the team), and Wilson put in valuable time as a utility player early last year before a bone bruise ruined the rest of his season.

The strength of the Hogs’ lineup will be timely hitting and being able to control pitching matchups late in a game. With a deep lineup of 11 lefties and three switch hitters, Van Horn will have the tools to strategize over the course of a game when to play to offensive or defensive strengths.

Opening Day Lineup (by order of position):

Jr Grant Koch C

So Evan Lee 1B

R-Sr Carson Shaddy 2B

Sr Jared Gates 3B

Jr Jax Biggers SS

Fr Heston Kjerstad LF

So Dominic Fletcher CF

Jr Eric Cole RF

Sr Luke Bonfield DH

Bullpen

This time last week it was looking very much like Kacey Murphy would be the Sunday starter to begin the season. With the emergence of McKinney the Hogs will have the luxury of having arguably their best starter to end last season as their number one reliever. In the SEC tournament last year, Murphy held the national champion Florida to two hits in a seven inning complete game shutout, striking out 8.

The nucleus of returning relievers consists of Jake Reindl, Lee, and Matt Cronin. Reindl put in the most innings of any reliever last year and threw up some great numbers in them. He projects to be a long reliever and someone who could finish a game if a starting pitcher gets into trouble in the middle innings. Lee came on in a pinch several times last year to put out fires. He should have an expanded role on the mound this year when not contributing at the plate. It was a wonder why Cronin did not get more opportunities than he did last year as he struck out 31 batters in just 18 innings. He will be a staple in the bullpen and could work himself into a starting position if needed.

Barrett Loseke took a step back last season after showing promise in his freshman season. If he can get back to form he will be a nice contributor as an experienced veteran. Cody Scroggins was pegged to close games last year before an injury ended his season after just 3 appearances. A converted third baseman, Scroggins will try to come back and display the control that convinced Van Horn to try him out on the mound.

Along with the several freshman hitters mentioned, the number three signing class was bolstered by a strong group of pitchers led by Bryce Bonnin. Though he came to college as a two-way player, Bonnin has since focused on pitching and is consistently being clocked in the high 90s. Van Horn has said numerous times that he expects Bonnin to contribute this season and pitch for a very long time.

Another big name is that of a big man, Jackson Rutledge. At 6’8”, 258lbs Rutledge has a dominant demeanor backed by an intimidating down angle fastball. Cole Ramage, Caleb Bolden, Hunter Milligan, and Zebulon Vermillion are freshmen that will look to contribute and gain experience to prime them for future seasons.

Arkansas begins the season with a healthy roster for the most part. While Turney will play this year, reliable reliever Kevin Kopps will miss this season due to Tommy John surgery and his presence will be missed greatly but perhaps not felt so much with the depth of the bullpen.

This season brings high hopes after the success that was had last year. If history has any bearing on the matter, the Hogs have made it to Omaha every three years since going in 2009, and is has been three years since their last trip in 2015. Much preseason recognition has been made about this roster, and justifiably so. Now it is time to sit back and enjoy some baseball.