Van Horn Prepares Diamond Hogs for Illinois-Chicago Flames

FAYETTEVILLE – Barring a change in Fayetteville’s Friday forecast for snow, expect the 7-3 Arkansas Razorbacks and 4-5 University of Illinois-Chicago Flames beginning their 4-game baseball series with a Thursday doubleheader at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Still on the books for daily games Thursday through Sunday, 

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said there are contingency plans for a Thursday doubleheader if Friday’s forecast remains snowy and then adjust accordingly for Saturday and Sunday.

“I would say right now what your looking at is definitely playing Thursday, possibly two,” Van Horn said.  “We’ll make that decision probably as forecasts develop a little bit.  And if we don’t play Friday and we can’t play Saturday then we’ll play Sunday.  But we’re not going to play a doubleheader on Sunday.”

The combination of the Flames needing to hit the road Sunday back to Chicago, and on Arkansas’ end the homestand continuing next week with Tuesday and Wednesday games against Grambling and the March 18-20 SEC opening 3-game series with Kentucky, mutually ruled out a UIC-Arkansas doubleheader for Sunday.

Playing four games in four days against UIC fits Van Horn’s plans to test his pitching staff before opening the SEC.

“But I’m not about playing four if you have to squeeze them all until the end of the weekend when you have two midweeks (vs. Grambling) and Kentucky coming in,” Van Horn said.  That’s too much stress on the bullpen.”

Whether the Hogs play one game or two on Thursday, senior Connor Noland, 1-1, 3.31 will start, Van Horn said.

Noland pitched five scoreless innings before getting hit by a bouncing ball in the eye affected him taking the loss charged with three of Southeastern Louisiana’s ’s seven sixth-inning runs in last Friday’s 7-3 game.

Off his 2 2-3 scoreless innings of hitless relief in last Friday’s 7-3 loss to Southeastern Louisiana University, freshman right-hander Austin Ledbetter of Bryant will start the UIC series Game Two whether it’s Thursday or Friday’s forecast brightens.

Weekend regular starters Hagen Smith, the freshman left-hander and “probably the most talented pitcher we have,” Van Horn said, and hard-throwing sophomore starter Jaxon Wiggins are set to start the games Saturday and Sunday weather permitting or could both pitch some if the Sunday game is all that conditions permit.

Smith, 2-1, and Wiggins, 2-1,  won their last starts in last Saturday’s 4-2 and 11-1 doubleheader sweep over SELU.

Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs harbor hopes to continue sorting out their bullpen this final nonconference weekend.

“We still have to figure some things out on the back end of games.” Van Horn said.

One pitcher Van Horn wanted to count upon, graduate transfer Isaac Bracken, redshirted last year because of injuries, is idled again, this time by a groin injury, Van Horn said.

Starting pitching and especially  defense, .987 fielding percentage, have been  excellent for the most part, Van Horn said.

Hitting has often struggled, .254 team batting average but picked up last weekend with transfer outfielder Jace Bohrofen snapping a slump to knock in five against SELU while transfer catcher Michael Turner leads with a .344 average with two home runs and 10 RBI.

The Hogs most touted freshman hitter, Peyton Stovall, has struggled living up to the hype and batting just .182.

It’s not uncommon for touted freshmen putting too much pressure on themselves. 

Andrew Benintendi, the Kansas City Royals outfielder nationally touted in high school, spent much of his 2014 Razorbacks freshman year struggling before hitting .276.

As a 2015 sophomore Benintendi so figured it out to win the Golden Spikes Award (baseball’s Heisman Trophy equivalent)  hitting .376 and a nationally leading 20 home runs.

Yeah, Benintendi struggled right out of the blocks,” Van Horn said Monday. “You look at what Cayden Wallace did last year, he really struggled.”

Wallace of Greenbrier quickly adjusted from struggling freshman  to becoming a starting outfielder for the 2021  SEC champion Hogs named a Freshman All-American by Baseball America hitting, .279 with  14 home runs and 44 RBI.

Now the starting third baseman, Wallace bats .342.

Van Horn foresees a similar Stovall surge once he relaxes and quits putting pressure on himself.

“We’ve mentioned guys in the past that got off to slow starts and ended up being pretty good,” Van Horn said.  “I think it’s more of a ‘I’m trying too hard.’ He’s gone out of the strike zone more in  the eight games he’s started think than he did all fall by double. I mean, he never went out of the zone. He would take a backwards K over swinging at a ball in the fall. We’ve got to get him back to more of that mentality.”

Van Horn said he plans to have Stovall back at first base and batting leading off against UIC.

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