BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
With just over a week before the 2023 college baseball season opens, Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn and Razorback pitching coach Matt Hobbs are feeling optimistic and confident about the bevy of quality arms they are going to send to the mound.
Van Horn was asked by a fan at Monday’s Swatter’s Club meeting about a comment he supposedly made about this being the best Arkansas pitching staff ever.
What Van Horn actually said in an answer to a reporter’s question about pitching depth was “well, right now, it’s the best I have ever had.”
“The deepest pitching staff,” Van Horn stressed. “One of the best, but the deepest…I’m not saying we have better pitchers than some guys that we have run through here, but we have more.
“We have a great pitching coach, Coach (Hobbs) is going to do a great job with them and I am so lucky to have him. Coach Hobbs is as good as it gets…He turns down three or four jobs every year and he has been offered two big league pitching coaching jobs to go straight there to (Major League Baseball).”
That pitching staff will be challenged right at the start of the season with games against Texas (7 p.m.), TCU (7 p.m.) and Oklahoma State (2:30 p.m.) next Friday through Sunday in the College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
“It’s a good year to be a little deeper than normal with our pitching staff,” Van Horn said. “You are always going to have your front line guys that have some experience and are really talented, but we have more arms that we are going to need to pitch that are going to do a good job for us.”
Arkansas has veterans Hagen Smith, Jackson Wiggins, Will McEntire and Brady Tygart back as well as adding junior college transfers Hunter Hollan and Cody Adcock as potential starters heading into the season.
“I mean, really, we have probably five or six guys we could start,” Van Horn said. “If somebody needs a week off, somebody’s fading, give them a week off. Just let them sit and watch and be ready for the next week. And we can do that. We’re not going to go crazy about it.”
Hobbs is still processing the right roles to put everyone in.
“I still think that the number of innings thrown is the most important thing, not necessarily where they throw them,” Hobbs said.
Van Horn cautions the fans to not read too much into the three pitchers who start the season’s first trio of games.
“The order of pitching is for the most part what we thought,” Van Horn said. “That could change, but the first weekend is first weekend. Everybody is excited. A lot of times you don’t do what you are going to do throughout the season, but it does give you an idea on what to work on.”
Wiggins had arguably the best fall of any of the hurlers, but was held out of Monday’s scrimmage for precautionary reasons due to soreness.
He is coming off a sophomore season in which he went 6-3 with a 6.55 ERA, 82 strikeouts, 43 walks, 12 wild pitches and 7 hit batters.
Hobbs noted that Wiggins’ inconsistency and wildness seem to have improved in the fall and has the coach believing a break out season is possible.
“Just the amount of strikes that he has thrown with his off-speed stuff,” Hobbs said. “The fastball has always been the fastball, but he has been able to throw strikes with his off-speed stuff. I think that gives you the most hope to be able to do what we expect him to do.”
Arkansas outfielder Jace Bohrofen was impressed with the pseaso of Wiggins, who has touched 100 miles per hour with his fastball.
“Yeah, this fall he was lights out,” Bohrofen said. “Like you said, he’s uber-talented. He’s got an unbelievable fastball, and he really took a step this fall, I thought. Just really commanding the zone, throwing his off-speed for strikes, just keeping hitters off-balance. I mean, he was virtually unhittable.”
Arkansas sophomore second baseman Peyton Stovall echoed some of those same sentiments.
“I’m kind of shaking my head like, ‘this dude, he looks different,’” Stovall said. “So, we’re excited to have him, and he’s been grinding in the weight room. He’s doing stuff extra. We’re really looking forward to seeing him make this jump this year.
“Kind of going off what Jace said about commanding, I think the big thing that sticks out to me with him is he commands his off-speed. That’s what he’s done exceptionally well in the fall. I’m looking forward to him continuing to build off of that.”
Smith (7-2, 4.66) could be the starter in the opener against Texas after a freshman season in which he started strong while in the rotation, battled a tired arm and then rallied pitching out of the bullpen into the College World Series.
“Last year when we pulled Smith out of the rotation he was struggling a little bit and his bullpens showed that,” Van Horn said. “With some of the technology (it showed) he was fading a little bit. But I truly believe that’s one reason we got to Omaha, because we rested him and got him right. He got us there coming out of the pen. I see Hagen as a starter.”
McEntire (2-2, 2.59) got an opportunity late in the season and flourished while starting 8 of the 12 games he pitched.
“Will is a lights-on guy I think — the closer you get to the beginning of the season, the better he gets,” Hobbs said. “It’s good to see it because it gives you that head-on-the-pillow starter that you really feel good about. We all know what Will is capable of and what he did last year. But it was good to see him go out there and throw really well today and he threw really good last week as well.”
Tygart was a freshman sensation going 3-4 record with a 3.82 ERA and 8 saves while serving as the closer most of the season.
“I think it’s still up in the air with Tygart,” Hobbs said. “I think he could be a starter. He has incredible stuff. His velocity is up. His fastball’s good. Obviously he’s got a really good breaking ball. He’s got a couple of them now. He worked on a couple of things.”
Tygart is also an obvious candidate to close as he did last season.
“Brady has already done it or maybe he starts,” Hobbs said. “Those things are still getting fleshed out a little bit, but I feel like we have four or five options at the back of the game, guys that either have good stuff or throw strikes or guys that I have done it before.”
Hollan has impressed Hobbs during the preseason and is also a likely starter opening weekend.
A 6-5, 200-pound left-handed junior, Hollan went 9-3 with a 3.59 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 28 walks in 80 1/3 innings on the mound last season for San Jacinto Junior College.
Hollan, who was committed to both Texas A&M and TCU at one point, was 10-3 as a freshman with 3.08 ERA while fanning 104 strikeouts and issuing just 17 batters in 73 innings.
“Pretty exciting stuff,” Hobbs said. “…When we got Hunter, I don’t know that we were expecting the stuff to be as good as it is. Obviously his stuff has made a pretty big jump. The strikes were always something that we knew he did. At San Jac, he was a really good strike thrower, but the stuff has gotten a lot better.
“We’ve got a lot more than we expected out of him and I think he has a chance to have a really big year for us.”
Adcock (6-3, 205) originally signed and attended Ole Miss before redirecting to Crowder Community College and then matriculated to Arkansas.
He appeared in 14 games with 6.41 ERA in 19 2/3 innings at Ole Miss with his longest outing ironically being a 4 1/3-inning stint against Arkansas in which he allowed 2 runs on 5 hits and whiffed 2 at the SEC Tournament.
Adcock was 4-2 with a 6.58 ERA at Crowder last season with 81 strikeout in 67 innings over 14 games.
“He’s a lot better than we thought he was,” Van Horn said. “I mean, he was pretty good at Ole Miss as a freshman. He was pretty good at Crowder as a sophomore. And now he’s really good. And sometimes you get guys that are just hungry, and that’s what it takes.”
Veteran Zack Morris (6-1, 2.31 in 35 innings last season) has struggled during the preseason.
“How can you not be concerned a little bit?” Hobbs said. “But I think Zack needs to face another uniform at the end of the day. We have all seen what he did last year when it mattered against other opponents.
“Some guys are slow starters. As much as it sounds a little bit like coachspeak, I would like it if every pitcher did great every time they pitched, but that is not the reality. Zack knows he needs to pitch better, but he’ll be fine.”
Arkansas also has pitchers Austin Ledbetter – who shined in the 2022 postseason – Dylan Carter, Nick Griffin, Jake Faherty, Christian Foutch and freshmen Parker Coil, Sean Fitzpatrick, Gage Wood, Josh Hyneman and Cooper Dossett as options.
“I think these things will just kind of grow and happen as they do with guys being able to step up as we put them in different positions,” Hobbs said. “But I do like some of the options with some of the stuff at the back of the game certainly.”
The closer role is open at the moment per Hobbs.
“It will be interesting to see how that develops,” Hobbs said. “The end of the game has been a developmental position since I have been here, except for the year we had (Matt) Cronin and you just knew who it was. Kevin (Kopps) wasn’t the closer, Jaxon (Wiggins) started off as the closer for that team. Then things all kind of happen organically.”
Dossett was hurt in the fall.
“He was a redshirt candidate in the fall because he was hurt,” Van Horn said. “He got hurt in his senior year and didn’t pitch all the time either. He is a big, strong kid for his age, really strong in the weight room. He worked extremely hard.
…Like all the righties, he is throwing the ball 93 to 96 and there is more in there. And he has a good breaking ball. If he can continue to do that and throw strikes.
Hobbs loves what he has seen from Dossett and Wood, who both pitched at the end of Monday’s scrimmage.
“Coop has been really good,” Hobbs said. “We didn’t see him in the fall, obviously, because he was banged up coming in here, but I thought he was awesome today. It is really exciting. I thought both the the freshman that threw at the end of the game threw amazing. That stuff is exciting for us.”
Van Horn pointed out that the youngsters have to do more than just pitch.
“The young guys have go to show us that they can manage the game, hold the runners, field the position,” Van Horn said, “because if not they will get exposed.”
Photo by John D. James