Baseball

Sophomore Casey Martin follows through on a swing Jan. 26 during the Razorbacks’ spring scrimmage.

The Diamond Hogs open the new season ranked near the middle of the pack after a national runner-up season last year.

The Razorbacks enter 2019 ranked No. 16 nationally on D1Baseball.com and No. 18 on baseballamerica.com. Given the amount of talent lost from last year’s team, this ranking should not surprise many.

Razorback head coach Dave Van Horn reflected on the polls at a press conference Jan. 24.

“I told the players we’re going to have to earn everything we get and that we wouldn’t be ranked in any poll,” Van Horn said. “Well, I was wrong there!”

He expanded on this, saying when you lose six position player starters and two out of three weekend starters, there is still much to be proved.

Some may view this as negativity, but Van Horn is just being realistic.

The departure of starters Blaine Knight and Kacey Murphy has left the Razorbacks deprived of reliability on the mound. Knight finished last season 14-0 with a 2.80 earned run average, a feat that Van Horn says may never happen again. Southpaw Kacey Murphy was solid as well, finishing 8-5 with a 3.20 ERA.

The Hogs also lost two supporting arms in Barrett Loseke and Jake Reindl, whose strong statlines are almost identical. Loseke posted a 2.68 ERA and an opponent average of .200 in 53.2 innings, whereas Reindl had a 2.91 ERA and an opponent average of .239 over 55.2 innings.

Additionally, the Razorbacks are lacking some offensive firepower with the absence of second baseman Carson Shaddy (.330 AVG, 15 home runs, 55 runs batted in), outfielder Eric Cole (.313 AVG, 14 HR, 52 RBI), and shortstop Jax Biggers (.280 AVG, 4 HR, 26 RBI).

The Razorbacks brought in a flurry of young talent in the offseason. The 2019 class is a pitcher-heavy group, with 11 freshman pitchers making the final roster and six position players.

Van Horn was optimistic about the new shipment of pitchers.

“We feel great about our bullpen,” Van Horn said. “Someone’s going to end up starting that maybe came out of the pen last year.”

The Hogs bullpen is highlighted by closer Matt Cronin who threw 48.1 innings last season, posting an ERA of 3.54 and an opponent average of .154. With reliever Caleb Bolden out for the season due to elbow surgery, returners Zebulon Vermillion and Cody Scroggins could see a heavier workload out of the pen.

But the questions in this year’s team lie in starting pitching, which has not been set in stone. Van Horn said other than first starter Isaiah Campbell, Kole Ramage and freshman Patrick Wicklander have looked outstanding in their bullpen sessions.

On the offensive side, the Hogs have three returning standouts in sophomore OF Heston Kjerstad, sophomore IF Casey Martin and junior OF Dominic Fletcher.

Kjerstad hit for an average of .332 and belted 14 HR with 58 RBI. Martin hit for a team-leading .345 average with 13 HR and 49 RBI. Fletcher hit for a .288 average with 10 HR and 49 RBI. Kjerstad and Martin were arguably the two best hitters on the team, leading the Hogs offensively as freshmen.

“To have three of our top hitters back is big, because you can build around them a little bit,” Van Horn said.

As a whole, the Razorbacks do not have the amount of talent that they possessed last year. They lost too many important players to be ranked with the best of college baseball. The Hogs will need solid starting pitching and consistent hitting to move up in the rankings.

The Hogs’ first game is Feb. 15 at 3:00 p.m.against the Eastern Illinois Panthers at Baum-Walker Stadium.

 

Parker Tillson is in his second year as a sports reporter for The Arkansas Traveler.

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