FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is ranked No. 4 in Baseball America's preseason poll, fueling plenty of expectations for a program that will be powered by its deep pitching staff.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is ranked No. 4 in Baseball America’s preseason poll, fueling plenty of expectations for a program that will be powered by its deep pitching staff.
But Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said there won’t be any problems keeping his team in check as it opened preseason practice Friday. The season-opening series against Villanova doesn’t begin until Feb. 17. Then there’s nearly a four-month grind before NCAA Regionals arrive.
“We’ll keep them grounded,” Van Horn said. “We will. It’s a long season. There’s a lot of work ahead of them to get to June to have a chance to play at the end of the year and we know that.”
The Razorbacks do, at least, feel confident they have the makings of a team that can reach the College World Series once again this season.
Arkansas returns 19 players from its SEC West championship team. It includes 10 members of a talented pitching staff led by starter D.J. Baxendale (10-2, 1.58 ERA) and reliever Barrett Astin (5-2, 2.72 ERA). The Razorbacks also have its starting infield back (first baseman Dominic Ficociello, second baseman Bo Bigham, shortstop Tim Carver, third baseman Matt Reynolds) and Arkansas believes newcomers like Jimmy Bosco, Brian Anderson and Joe Serrano will help an offense that struggled in 2011.
Arkansas — which finished 40-22 last season with an NCAA Regional loss at Arizona State — still has plenty to sort out in the next few weeks. One of the key questions, in fact, is finding a leader behind the plate after catcher James McCann signed with the Detroit Tigers.
But Van Horn said there’s plenty of reason for optimism as practice began Friday afternoon.
“I am looking forward to it and know the players are looking forward to it,” Van Horn said. “I felt like in the middle of last year, when our young guys were playing so well, that 2012 could be a great year and ‘13 and hopefully on and on. … I think we are ready to roll.”
The first day of practice also was greeted by some work in Baum Stadium on Friday. The Razorbacks are in the process of moving the right field fence in from 375 to 365 feet.
Van Horn has wanted to make for several years and said it’s a necessity for recruiting, helping Arkansas stave off arguments from opposing coaches that Baum Stadium is a bad place for left-handed power hitters.
“Just talking to former players like Zack Cox, Andy Wilkins, some of these guys didn’t know the wind blew in like it did,” Van Horn said. “I think some of these coaches are trying to make sure left-handed hitters know it.”
Van Horn said Arkansas has gotten a taste of the change during instructional workouts, when balls usually caught on the warning track hit the top of the fence with the wind blowing in.
“This is really going to help us,” Van Horn said. “That’s why we did it, for recruiting more than anything. I like left-handed hitters and I think it makes it more fair.”
Key position battles
Van Horn said junior Matt Vinson and sophomore Jacob Morris begin the preseason as his starting outfielders. The third spot is undecided.
The Razorbacks are considering Bosco, Anderson, Serrano and Derrick Bleeker for the position.
Another important preseason position battle is at catcher. Van Horn said the two candidates to replace McCann are sophomore Jake Wise and freshman John Clay Reeves.
“We’ll go with the fresh guy until somebody takes that job,” Van Horn said. “Then it could be a situation where they catch two out of three every weekend. … We’ll just kind of see how it goes. But right now it’s definitely the most inexperienced position on the team.”
Van Horn had one other reason to look forward to the start of practice Friday — good weather.
“It feels like spring,” Van Horn said. “The first time in many years we can start out getting outside and getting a lot of work in.”
Arkansas held an intrasquad scrimmage Friday and will be on the field again today at approximately 12:30. Sunday’s workout will begin at 1:30. Practices are open to the public.