The Razorback baseball team held its annual Fall World Series last week at Baum Stadium, but this time it was with an unfamiliar face.
Following the 2015 season, Arkansas legendary pitching coach Dave Jorn retired after 20 seasons with the Razorbacks. Head coach Dave Van Horn then hired Wes Johnson as the team’s new pitching coach. Johnson was the pitching coach at Mississippi State last season and helped the Bulldogs win the 2016 Southeastern Conference Regular Season Championship.
The best-of-five series gave fans their first look at the team with Johnson. The Sherwood native previously coached at Dallas Baptist University before moving to Starkville, Mississippi.
Johnson and the Hogs are under some added pressure this season because, for the first time in Van Horn’s coaching career at Arkansas, the Razorbacks did not play in the NCAA tournament last season.
Pitching seemed to be a weak point heading into the third game of the series with Team Cardinal giving up 16 runs combined between the first two games, when redshirt junior Josh Alberius changed that. Alberius was named the starter for the Gray team, which was coached by Van Horn.
After pitching 5 innings and allowing only 4 runs, Alberius helped the defense close out a stellar series sweep with a 21-4 victory over Team Cardinal.
When asked about his new pitching coach, Alberius said he thinks Johnson knows his stuff.
“He knows baseball as far as statistics and strength more than anybody, so he’s just a great coach to play under,” Alberius said.
After the game, Van Horn said he was impressed with Alberius’ performance.
“That’s one thing you’re going to get from Josh. He’s going to throw strikes,” Van Horn said. “I see him being a Tuesday night starter, or a long reliever.”
Last year, Alberius had a 3-1 record in 25 appearances and finished the season with a 3.90 ERA.
Van Horn also had praise for Johnson and the progress he has made so far.
“(He) is very organized,” Van Horn said. “There’s a lot going on there and I think our pitchers are going to be ready to go, mentally and physically.”
Although Johnson enters the 2016 season with some big shoes to fill, the real pressure seems to be felt by Van Horn, who missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since coming to Arkansas in 2003.
Junior outfielder Luke Bonfield said he enjoys Johnson’s attitude.
“Just a fireball, ton of energy, willing to help anyone out,” Bonfield said. “You see with the pitchers, I feel like everyone’s throwing 90s to some guys upper 90s, so it’s really putting our pitching staff on the map.”
With an important bounce-back season on the horizon, the Razorbacks have different motivation than last season.
“Every year, everyone’s hungry to get (to the NCAA tournament),” Bonfield said. “I think this year a little more so just because we didn’t make the postseason. But, I think it’s just one of the things the older guys kind of set for the younger guys is you know, anything but Omaha is, well Omaha or bust basically.”
The Diamond Hogs won’t return to Baum Stadium until the regular season begins. A schedule for the upcoming season has yet to be released.