It's safe to say the Hogs entered the 2013 campaign with high expectations. They were ranked No. 2 in the Perfect Game College Top 25 to begin the season, ranked as high as No. 1 by some other polls. But while the Hogs certainly still have the key pieces that warranted a high billing in the preseason, they've had trouble finding the right formula so far this season, whether because of key injuries or simple lack of production.
"The biggest issue we've had thus far is we haven't been able to put together a consistent lineup because of injuries. We've been battling that all year," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "We just haven't been able to put all the pieces together yet, but we're hoping that changes."
The injuries the Hogs have endured so far this season aren't easy fixes . For instance, the Hogs have been touch-and-go since opening day with second baseman Dominic Ficociello, who missed time to start the year because of an oblique strain. Then, things got worse when Matt Vinson went down with a wrist injury after diving for a ball in the outfield. Vinson returned to the lineup for the Razorbacks on Wednesday against Alabama A&M, so they're hoping his addition will further boost the offensive lineup -- which is hitting .297 so far this season -- this weekend against the Rebels, who have several talented arms.
With Ficociello's situation and Vinson just now returning to the lineup, the Razorbacks have been forced to tinker with the batting order so far this season. Van Horn likes second baseman Jacob Mahan in the leadoff spot, while he says Joe Serrano, who's hitting .278 with a home run and eight RBIs is firmly entrenched in the two-hole.
Fortunately for the Hogs, three-hole hitter Tyler Spoon, a redshirt freshman, and third baseman Brian Anderson have risen to the occasion at the plate.
Spoon is an interesting story. With the Hogs scuffling offensively in the middle of last season, Van Horn considered taking the redshirt off him in an effort to help boost the Hogs' offensive production. After meeting with Spoon, though, Van Horn thought better of the idea and decided to redshirt him. Spoon went off to the Alaska League last summer, and has since become a force in the lineup, hitting an outstanding .388 with a double, a team-best three homers and a team-best 22 RBIs.
"Spoon has been very consistent. He had a 16-game hitting streak going into the week and he just hits the ball right on the nose," Van Horn said. "He really hit the ball well in the fall and spring. He's very confident and has a good swing, and he can use all sides of the field. More than anything, though, he's just physically stronger, and he's gotten off to a good start from a mental standpoint."
While there's plenty of concern about the Razorbacks from an offensive standpoint, take into account they reached the College World Series last season with a .271 batting average. Though it's still early, the Hogs currently have a .297 average despite some injury issues.
"We just need to get a lineup, and get it rolling," he said. "Day-to-day, I feel like this lineup is better than the one we had last season. It's just a matter of time."
Much more surprising than anything pertaining to the Arkansas offense is the shakeup the pitching staff will undergo this weekend.
In what will come as a surprise to many, All-American right-handed pitcher Ryne Stanek, who has just been OK so far this season, has moved to the No. 3 spot in the rotation. Meanwhile, freshman right-handed pitcher Trey Killian will start Friday night against Ole Miss right-hander Bobby Wahl, and veteran lefty Randall Fant gets the starting nod in the No. 2 spot.
Stanek certainly hasn't been bad so far this spring, but he hasn't pitched the way he's capable of thus far. The talented right-hander, who continues to show good velocity, has had command issues, as evidenced by his 16 strikeouts and 10 walks in just 17 innings of work.
Fant has an 0.90 ERA in 10 innings, along with a .222 opponent batting average, while Killian, along with fellow talented freshman Colin Poche, have made a quick transition to Division I baseball. Killian is the team's best starting pitcher from an earned-run average standpoint with a 0.86 ERA along with 22 strikeouts and just one walk, while Fant has an 0.90 ERA in 10 innings of work.
Killian's rise isn't too surprising. The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder, had an exceptional fall for the Razorbacks and showed the maturity and poise of a veteran. Killian, an Arkansas native, and ranked No. 117 by PG out of high school, is consistently throwing his fastball 90-93 with good secondary offerings.
"He just goes out there and competes. He's going to stay around the plate and doesn't give hitters a whole lot to work with in terms of walks. He makes you earn everything you get for the most part," he said. "He's confident, athletic and works hard. He's been fantastic thus far."
Arkansas has its typical deep bullpen to work with as SEC play continues, but it would like to get hard-throwing right-handed reliever Colby Suggs back on track. Suggs, a Preseason PG All-American, has had some command issues with his secondary stuff this spring, and has a 5.06 ERA in 5 1/3 innings of work. Still, he's a premium arm with a fastball into the mid-to-upper 90s.
Meanwhile, Brandon Moore has a 1.46 ERA in six appearances, Michael Gunn hasn't allowed a run in four appearances, same with Tyler Wright, and Chris Oliver and Trent Daniel are both very quality arms. Of course, there's also junior right-handed pitcher Barrett Astin, who despite one bad weekend, continues pitch well with a 1.71 ERA in 21 innings.
Moving into SEC play, this Arkansas team doesn't appear to be much different from last year's club. The starting pitching and bullpen are still in and great shape, leaving the offense, to no surprise, as the only remaining concern.
And even there, Dave Van Horn feels good about the unit's potential.
Balanced LSU heads to Mississippi State
LSU coach Paul Mainieri couldn't feel better about his club entering its opening series of Southeastern Conference play against Mississippi State.
There were plenty of question marks about LSU entering the spring. Despite a lofty ranking, the Tigers had some significant holes to fill. For instance, who would replace Austin Nola at shortstop, and would someone finally step into that No. 3 spot in the weekend rotation? Those were the primary questions, with others out there, too.
Mainieri certainly wouldn't call the Tigers flawless at this stage of the season, but he feels good about the direction this team is headed. It's easy to see why, too, when you consider the Tigers are 16-1 with an impressive balance of offensive production and consistent overall pitching.
"I couldn't be more pleased with where we are as a team right now. Most of the questions we needed answers to have evolved. Our guys have pretty much played themselves into their roles," Mainieri said. "We have a good balance of right-handed and left-handed hitters, we play solid defense, we've got some power, and we've got some good top-line starting pitchers.
"Really, just kind of closing off the closer role is the only question mark we have left."
When discussing the Tigers before the season, the names of right-handed pitchers Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades were most talked about, and for good reason. Nola had an outstanding freshman campaign for the Tigers, while Eades is one of the elite prospects for the upcoming MLB draft.
Both pitchers had incredibly high expectations placed on them before the season, but they've flourished so far this spring. Nola, who has gained 20 pounds since arriving at LSU two falls ago, has a 2.77 ERA in 26 innings, while also flashing a fastball up to 95, while Eades has been much more consistent this spring with a 1.80 ERA in 25 innings. He also has been up to 95 with his fastball, but most importantly, he's avoiding the mistake pitches that haunted him last season.
"Nola has really picked up his velocity a bit, and his overall stuff is just better this season. He gets up to 95, but kind of works at 91-92, but that's not bad considering his overall stuff," Mainieri said. "His curveball has really tightened up, and his changeup is pretty good right now. He's a better pitcher than he was last season.
"As for Ryan, he's really made a big jump forward this season. He's not making the same mistakes he was last season," he said. "There were times in the past when he'd go 0-2 and hang a curveball. He's not doing that anymore, and consequently, he's striking out more hitters."
While Nola and Eades lead the weekend rotation, the Tigers have gotten very comfortable with sophomore left-handed hurler Cody Glenn in the No. 3 spot. LSU began the season with Brent Bonvillain in the No. 3 role, but Glenn has occupied that spot for the past couple of weeks.
The left-hander hasn't disappointed Mainieri and LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn. He has an 0.73 ERA in 24 2/3 innings of work. He also has a unique arm angle, which creates more movement and deception on his pitches. Interestingly, Glenn was recruited as more of a higher velocity type of pitcher.
"He has really emerged and didn't even give up a run through his first 19 innings. He's really done a great job, emerging as our No. 3 starter in the process," he said. "When we recruited him, we though he'd be a 90 mph type of guy, but his arm slot dropped a bit and he's having a lot of success with his new angle. He's not throwing quite as hard as he did before, but his command is better and he keeps the ball down."
With the weekend starting roles seemingly set for good, the Tigers also don't expect to have many changes in regards to the bullpen. Veteran left-handed pitcher Chris Cotton, a 5-foot-10, 166-pounder, continues to do a fantastic job on the back-end of games with an 0.84 ERA and five saves in 10 2/3 innings, while Kevin Berry, Hunter Devall, Joey Bourgeois and Will LaMarche continue to add additional stability to the bullpen.
If there's a surprise with this club at this point in the season, it's the sheer production of the offense when you factor in that second baseman JaCoby Jones and catcher Ty Ross, both Preseason All-Americans, are hitting .235 and .213, respectively. Mainieri said both players are hitting better than the averages might indicate, but it's common thought the talented duo eventually will get things back on track.
The Tigers can give much early season credit to freshmen Mark Laird and Alex Bregman. Bregman's sudden rise comes as a surprise to no one. He was chosen as the PG Preseason Freshman of the Year, and has played the part in place of Austin Nola. Bregman is hitting .391 with six doubles, two triples, a home run and 16 RBIs. He also has been solid defensively so far this spring, a sigh of relief for Mainieri considering how good Nola was last season.
Laird, though, is a huge surprise. A very under the radar recruit out of high school, the premier athlete, who has 3.58 speed from home to first base, is leading the team with an outstanding .410 batting average and six RBIs.
The Tigers also are pleased with the contributions of junior-college transfer Christian Ibarra and Chris Sciambra, who's back after a serious back injury sidelined him last season.
"Those guys all bring something new and exciting to the table. Both Laird and Bregman are fearless and not your typical freshmen. You could see it in the fall," he said. "They had something different about them out there even then. Laird has a very calm demeanor with great skills, while Bregman is more emotional and plays the game at a very high level."
Confidence is abound for the Tigers as they head to Starkville, Miss., this weekend for a huge series against the Bulldogs.
Mainieri and the Tigers are ready for the road ahead.
Pitching prowess: Jacksonville's Chris Anderson vs. East Carolina's Jeff Hoffman
Neither Jacksonville or East Carolina are off to hot starts this season. Yet, when it comes to the nation's top pitching matchups this weekend, it simply doesn't get any better than the bout between JU junior right-handed hurler Chris Anderson and East Carolina sophomore right-handed pitcher Jeff Hoffman.
Both Anderson and Hoffman are common names in the scouting industry, and for good reason. Anderson is one of the elite prospects for the 2013 MLB Draft, while Hoffman one of the top names for next year's draft. To make this matchup even better, as good as both pitchers are from a prospect standpoint, they're also very good pitchers from a statistical standpoint, especially Anderson.
While Jacksonville has struggled in many areas this season, including team defense, Anderson has been a constant, sitting pretty with an 0.87 ERA in 31 innings of work, while he also has 45 strikeouts and just five walks, just 15 strikeouts away from besting his 2012 total.
"He's really learned to just go out there and command his own game. We let him just call his own game," Jacksonville head coach in waiting Tim Montez said. "The biggest thing for him now is that he's as good of a competitor is I've ever seen. He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve, and he lets his stuff take over."
Anderson hasn't always had an easy time composing himself on the mound. Though he's had a good career at JU, he has dealt with some role changes. Anderson was a pure reliever as a freshman, where he was accustomed to just blowing fastballs past hitters without using an extensive repertoire, while as a sophomore, he became more of a starting pitcher, but had command issues at times with 69 strikeouts and 40 walks in 88 1/3 innings of work.
"Early on in his career, he reminded me a lot of Matt Garza when I had him at Fresno State. He really wore his emotions on his sleeve. Now, though, he's the most composed guy that we probably have. His composure is now uncanny," Montez said. "We added a slider for him last year when he become a starting pitcher, while also refining the curveball and changeup."
After two seasons to refine his stuff, Anderson finally is in his perfect place. And from a prospect standpoint, there's very little, if anything, not to like about him. The talented right-hander has a physical and prototypical frame at 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, and reminds Montez a lot of former big leaguer Andy Benes.
"He's really put together well with a big, thick lower half, a lot like Andy Benes. Physically speaking, Andy was a strong and big righty," Montez said. "The thing that separates him right now is early in his career he had issues with location. Now, he's the type of guy who can locate four or five pitches. That just puts him over the hump."
Anderson is showing excellent stuff this spring. He's consistently 91-96 with his fastball, and has gotten up to 97. Meanwhile, his slider is a plus pitch and typically sits anywhere from 80-84, while his changeup is 79-80 mph and a plus pitch with good depth and late downward movement. The righty also throws a two-seam fastball and curveball.
"He's really learned to use all of his pitches now. He can throw a curveball early in the count, and the second and third time through the lineup, and still be effective. He can also use the changeup in the same fashion," he said. "The thing about Chris now is that hitters pretty much can't sit on anything. He'll throw any pitch in any count."
Though Hoffman hasn't been quite as dominant as Anderson so far, he, too, is showing elite stuff and having a good campaign for the Pirates. Hoffman, whose stock skyrocketed following his performance at the Cape Cod League last summer, has a 3.42 ERA in 26 1/3 innings of work. He also has 22 strikeouts and nine walks.
"I think he's been very efficient, that'd probably be a good way to put it," ECU coach Billy Godwin said. "He probably doesn't have the same number of punch outs as some other guys, but we've also tried hard to stay at a reasonable pitch count with him."
Hoffman didn't start the 2013 campaign in stellar fashion. He allowed four runs, walked four and allowed four hits in 4 2/3 innings in his first start of the season against Virginia. However, he has since been much more crisp. He struck out nine in 6 2/3 innings against Illinois, allowed just two runs on eight hits in seven innings against St. John's before allowing three runs on six hits in eight innings last weekend against Monmouth.
Interestingly, in two of his three starts, Hoffman hasn't been the overpowering pitcher that he potentially showed to be at the Cape Cod League last summer. Still, that's not a concern for coach Billy Godwin.
"He has given up a grand slam and then gave up a home run against Monmouth. But really, outside of those two mistakes, he's been pretty good for us," Godwin said. "With that said, he does need to get ahead in counts more. He has had a lot of high counts so far this season, and that needs to improve. He has really good stuff, and he just needs to attack the zone."
In terms of his stuff, Hoffman is consistently throwing his fastball 92-93, while he has been up to 95-96 at times. Meanwhile, he continues to show off a four-pitch mix for the Pirates, including a curveball, cutter and changeup.
"His fastball is probably his best pitch at this point," Godwin said. "He's really come back from that summer at the Cape Cod League and really settled in. He's going to have a great year for us."
Series to watch
Miami (Fla.) at 1 North Carolina: Fresh off a disappointing series loss to Duke to begin ACC play, the Hurricanes' road doesn't get easier this weekend with a trip to North Carolina. The 16-0 Tar Heels have been fantastic in all facets so far this season, led by hard-hitting outfielder Skye Bolt.
THE PICK: North Carolina
2 Vanderbilt at Auburn: Ace pitcher Kevin Ziomek and the Commodores have been terrific on the mound so far this season, but will get tested on the road this weekend against hot-hitting freshman Jordan Ebert and the Tigers. The big surprise for AU is a much improved staff.
THE PICK: Vanderbilt
3 LSU at 14 Mississippi State: Despite a tough injury last Friday against Central Arkansas, MSU left-handed pitcher Jacob Lindgren is fully expected to return to the mound Friday night against the Tigers. Meanwhile, LSU has an outstanding one-two punch in Aaron Nolan and Ryan Eades. The key to the weekend might just be the State offense with Adam Frazier and speedy Hunter Renfroe leading the charge.
THE PICK: LSU
5 Oregon State at 23 Arizona: The Beavers have played exceptionally well so far this season, but suffered their first loss earlier this week to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Arizona, which hasn't played a great schedule, hopes to make a big statement with sluggers such as freshman outfielder Zach Gibbons leading the charge.
THE PICK: Oregon State
8 Mississippi at 16 Arkansas: The Rebels hit the road this weekend to face the Hogs, who are looking to make a statement to begin SEC play. Rebels catcher Stuart Turner has been a monster at the plate so far this spring, while they desperately need Sam Smith to step up in the No. 3 starting spot to win the series.
THE PICK: Arkansas
22 Virginia at Clemson: Outside of the first weekend against East Carolina, the Cavaliers have played a rather weak schedule. They'll be tested this weekend on the road against Clemson. UVa. needs a strong start from freshman left-hander Brandon Waddell, who has a 1.59 ERA in 22 innings.
THE PICK: Clemson
17 Notre Dame at Cal Poly: The Fighting Irish continue their rigorous West Coast road trip with a three-game set against a surprisingly good Cal Poly club. The Mustangs have a very solid pitching staff with starting pitchers Joey Wagman and Matt Imhof leading the way. Imhof sat in the low-90s last weekend against Kansas State.
THE PICK: Cal Poly
New Mexico at 24 UNLV: The Lobos have one of the top offensive lineups in the country with third baseman DJ Peterson and catcher Mitchell Garver leading the charge. However, they'll need their pitching staff to step up against a hot-hitting UNLV lineup with Erik VanMeetren and Brandon Bayardi leading the charge.
THE PICK: UNLV
12 Kentucky at Florida: The Wildcats have played a weak schedule so far this season, and we're not sure Florida is too stiff of a test for this club with how consistent it has been so far this season. The Gators will start freshmen Jason Carmichael and Eric Hanhold in the weekend rotation this weekend, while UK has an experienced rotation.
THE PICK: Kentucky
Texas Tech at Texas: The Longhorns have played a good brand of baseball for the past week or so, while the Red Raiders hope to get on the national stage with a big road series win in Austin. Tech must get a good start from junior right-handed pitcher Trey Masek, who has yet to allow a run this season and has a fastball in the mid-90s.
THE PICK: Texas