Pitching Depth Pays Off

Dave Van Horn

Arkansas has a couple of hands down late in pre-season camp -- and two suspensions -- but it shouldn't cause any problems for Dave Van Horn for the opening weekend.

If this was a conference weekend, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn might not be happy about some injuries that have hit his pitching staff. Stars Colby Suggs and Randall Fant both have some nagging pulls that might slow their progress for a couple of weeks.

But as it is, Van Horn said the Hogs are still sitting pretty because of perhaps the deepest pitching staff in college baseball. The No. 1 Hogs are just going to shuffle the deck a bit.

Suggs has a slight pull in his rib cage. He'll still throw on the side this weekend and might be ready for the opening weekend when Western Illinois plays at Baum Stadium on Feb. 15-17. Fant has a hamstring injury that also might make him questionable for the first weekend.

"Fant re-aggravated his hamstring injury and Suggs hasn't pitched in 10 days," Van Horn said at the baseball team's media day Friday morning. "I don't know their availability for the opening weekend."

Hence, the rotation for Western Illinois will be Ryne Stanek on Friday, Barrett Astin on Saturday and Trent Daniel on Sunday. Van Horn has penciled in Trey Killian and Colin Poche as midweek starters against New Orleans on Tuesday and Wednesday. Killian might throw out of the bullpen Friday.

"We've got a lot of guys and we don't want to rush (Suggs and Fant)," Van Horn said. "If this was a conference weekend, I'd probably worried. But they'll have time."

Along with Suggs and Fant on the mend, the Hogs will have to do without Poche and Adam Meyer on the first weekend. Both are suspended after an off-the-field incident. They will miss the first three games. Still, Van Horn thinks the depth can absorb things early.

"We're fine," he said. "We have a lot of pitchers. This is just going to give a couple of guys an opportunity to throw a little more. Instead of one time the first four or five games, they're going to get to throw twice.

"I'm not concerned about it at all. If we were in league play, I'd be concerned, but better now than later. Hopefully these guys will get healthy and will come back even stronger."

Suggs and Fant both think they are well along the road to recovery and will be back soon.

"I'm close," Suggs said. "I'll throw a bullpen this weekend, but won't be in scrimmages. I'd hope I could pitch next weekend."

With Suggs on the mend and Astin in the starting rotation at least early, Van Horn said juco transfer Jalen Beeks from Prairie Grove might fill the closer role. Brandon Moore is also an option, although he's more likely to fill his usual role in middle relief.

"We've got a lot of guys who can close," Van Horn said. "It could be a little bit of everybody. Brandon Moore could close it out in three or four innings because we've done that before."

Van Horn has been excited throughout January about the progress of lefty Cade Lynch, sidelined for most of last season with headaches. Winter surgery seems to have corrected his problems. He's thrown three times, getting better each time.

"He's just got to get in shape," Van Horn said of Lynch. "With his situation he can't do a lot of conditioning, can't do a lot of running and has to condition in other ways. It's made it hard on him when he was pretty much out of commission for six months, being the size he is he gained a little bit of weight.

"He's thrown some good pitches, not every pitch, but we're saying, 'Wow, that's him.' He's still hard to hit, hard to see and hard to pick up. I'm really excited for him. IT'S like a miracle seeing him out there. I'm thinking no way and then there he is. If things keep progressing the way I've seen the first couple or three weeks, he'll be a big part of our bullpen."

Van Horn said Lynch is getting closer to being ready.

"He could pitch," Van Horn said. "He's pitching this weekend in a scrimmage and pitched last weekend. His number of pitches in scrimmages have built up. Opening weekend he'll be ready to go a couple of innings, hopefully.

"(Velocity) is not as good as it was. He was always an upper 80s guy, but guys swung at it like it was 92 because they didn't see it well. He has a good breaking ball and a good cahnge-up. His velocity right now is in the mid 80s, but it'll climb 1, 2, 4 miles per hour. It'll be there and he'll be back."

Expectations are off the charts with the Hogs finishing third at the College World Series last June and opening at the No. 1 spot in several pre-season polls. Van Horn said he's only focused on daily progress.

"If we do everything we can every day to get better, the wins will take care of themselves," he said. "If we just play hard and control what we can control, what do you say? Show up every day and bust it, that's what we ask them to do.

"As far as saying we have to win this or do that, I don't want to put that kind of pressure on anybody. I want our guys to control what we can control and care about the program. If they can do that, we'll be in good shape at the end of the year."

Daniel has been the most impressive pitcher on the staff. He was impressive by the end of the fall and better in January.

"Daniel was really good in his first scrimmage this spring, and then really, really good in his second outing," Van Horn said. "He's throwing 90 and his changeup and breaker is for strikes. He showed he can start. It's nice to have another lefty (to start)."

Astin sees outstanding stuff from Daniel.

"I don't think anyone questions that Trent wasn't our bets pitcher last fall," Astin said. "He's even better since we started back.

"I think some struggles last year really made him grow up. He's got some great pitches. There is a lot of run to his two-seamer and his change is really good. And then there's the slider, a lot of snap to that.

"I know last year didn't live up to what he had for expectations and that's made him tougher this year."

Offensively, Van Horn likes outfielder Matt Vinson in the leadoff spot. The other outfielders in the four-man rotation -- Joe Serrano, Tyler Spoon and Jacob Morris -- are also going to figure into those first three spots in the order. Second baseman Dominic Ficociello will likely bat fourth, followed by third baseman Brian Anderson, first baseman Eric Fisher, Willie Schwanke, shortstop Brett McAfee and catcher Jake Wise. Schwanke figures in at third and is also a candidate to be the designated hitter.

"I like the way it shapes up," Van Horn said. "We've got more balance than last year, right versus left. It will make it tough for teams when they are trying to go right-left with their pitching late in games.

"The pitching that our guys are facing every day in scrimmages, it's almost like they can't wait to face somebody else. Mississippi state is saying the same thing.

"I've watched them and what they're talking about. And they feel like because of their pitching staff, and it's a great pitching staff, that their hitters are going to be well ahead of some other teams. Probably North Carolina is saying the same thing and LSU is saying the same thing."

Vinson good play center or left. He's not been a lead-off man in college, but it is a familiar spot.

"That's where I hit in high school," he said. "My high school coach thought that would get me the most at bats. I don't think it will change my approach too much because I want to stay aggressive.

"Still the lead-off man should try to get a few more pitches so that the guys behind you see what the pitcher has got a little bit."

Van Horn likes the approach his hitters are taking in scrimmages. Experience is the key.

"There's some guys that are really bearing down when they get two strikes," he said. "Hopefully they've bought into some things. I think there's more competition to play.

"Last year when you look around, you probably say if you're a position player we have a lot of scholarships wrapped up in those arms over there. We're kind of thin over here. I'm going to play if it doesn't go right. I think this year they look around and go I've got to keep going or im going to taken out of this lineup. And I think that's good motivation right there.

"But I like the way it's shaping up so far. We've actually moved Vinson or Morris, whoever is playing or if both of them are playing, we've moved them to the top of the order and put Serrano possibly in the two hole. Maybe move him down just because of what we've seen. Going into the season, I feel like Vinson is our lead-off hitter."

HawgsIllustrated.com Recommended Stories

Up Next