After 346 days without a regular season game, eighth-ranked Arkansas is set to open the 2021 college baseball season Saturday night in Arlington, Texas. The Razorbacks will meet three of the nation’s best teams at Major League Baseball’s newest ballpark, Globe Life Field.
Rather than host a three-game series at Baum-Walker Stadium, head coach Dave Van Horn opted to enter the inaugural College Baseball Showdown. The tournament consists of three teams from both the Southeastern and Big 12 Conferences. The Hogs, joined by Mississippi State and Ole Miss from the SEC, will take on Texas Tech, Texas and TCU during the three-day event.
“It’s going to be great being able to go out there and play against such good competition from the start,” junior center fielder Christian Franklin said in a Zoom press conference last month. “There’s a lot of top-10 teams out there and so it’s going to be like playing in a College World Series for opening weekend.”
The tournament was originally set to begin Friday, Feb. 19, but was postponed a day because of inclement weather. Barring further postponements, the Razorbacks will open with the No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The two squads have met in the past two College World Series, with Arkansas downing Texas Tech in 2018 en route to the CWS Finals. In 2019, the Red Raiders bested the Razorbacks, knocking them out of the tournament.
Van Horn announced Thursday that senior righty Zebulon Vermillion will make his first career start on the mound Saturday. Vermillion picked up a win and a save along with 12 strikeouts in 7 ⅓ spotless innings in 2020.
Sophomore right-hander Peyton Pallette earned his first career starting nod as well, and he will get the ball for Sunday’s contest against the No. 9 Texas Longhorns. The last meeting between the former Southwest Conference foes came during the 2018 College World Series, when the Hogs asserted dominance with an 11-run performance in the opening round.
The tournament is scheduled to conclude Monday night with a clash against the No. 10 TCU Horned Frogs. In the 2019 Fayetteville Regional, the Razorbacks claimed two victories over the Horned Frogs to advance to the Super Regional round. Senior lefty Lael Lockhart, a two-way transfer from Houston, will make his Arkansas debut when the Hogs and Frogs renew their rivalry.
The rotation marks a departure from Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander, a pair of juniors who began 2020 as the Friday and Saturday starters. Van Horn said the decision not to start either speaks to the pitching staff’s depth, and that he envisions plenty of usage for both players in 2021.
“We’re just trying to go with the guys that we feel like, as of right now, are maybe just a step ahead of some guys,” Van Horn said Thursday, “that doesn’t mean that that’s the way it’s going to be the whole season, obviously.”
The Arkansas pitchers will be backed at the plate by a very strong batting order. The lineup will be filled with experience despite the departures of smooth-swinging outfielder Heston Kjerstad and speedy shortstop Casey Martin. Veterans include senior catcher Casey Opitz, senior designated hitter Matt Goodheart, sophomore second baseman Robert Moore and Franklin, all of whom earned preseason first team All-SEC honors.
Rounding out the starting nine, junior Jacob Nesbit will return to third base, newcomers Jalen Battles and Brady Slavens will fill in at shortstop and first base, respectively, and junior Braydon Webb and freshman Cayden Wallace will flank Franklin in the outfield.
“I feel really good about our lineup right now,” Van Horn said. “We’ve been using it a lot in this early part of practice and scrimmages. Trying to put more of the starters on the same team just so they would get a little bit of an idea of a lineup and get comfortable with it…it’s made for a couple of lopsided scrimmages.”
The games Saturday and Sunday are listed as 7 p.m. start times, and Monday is set for 6 p.m. All the games will be streamed on FloBaseball, and general admission tickets can be purchased on the Texas Rangers website for $25.