Arkansas could use 3 different 1B on Opening Weekend
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FAYETTEVILLE — On the eve of the 2021 season, Arkansas’ lineup is settled except at one spot: first base.
The Razorbacks could use as many as three different players at the position when they take on a trio of ranked Big 12 programs at the State Farm College Baseball Showdown this weekend in Arlington, Texas.
Head coach Dave Van Horn said newcomers Brady Slavens and Cullen Smith would likely see action at first base, as well as veteran Matt Goodheart.
All three of them are left-handed hitters whose presence at the plate is good enough to get them in the lineup despite none of them being natural first basemen.
“(Slavens) brings a pretty good bat,” Van Horn said. “Smith is probably ahead of him a little bit defensively right now. Goodheart's arm is a little bit of the issue. It comes and goes. That's what the other guys have on Matt right now - they can throw a little better.”
Goodheart, who came to Arkansas from San Jacinto C.C. as an outfielder, will definitely be in the Opening Day lineup against Texas Tech on Saturday, but he figures to be the designated hitter.
The Magnolia native is still recovering from shoulder surgery he had following the 2019 season. Similar to Trevor Ezell a couple of years ago, it doesn’t effect how he swings the bat, but it’s been very up and down when it comes to throwing the ball.
“It’s been a long road and I’ve worked hard to get it to where it is right now and it’s come a long ways,” Goodheart said. “I do anticipate playing some defense this year. No matter what coach Van Horn asks of me I respect my role and want to go out there and help the team in whatever way I can, whether that’s DHing or playing first base.”
Although this will be Smith’s first season playing for the Razorbacks, he was actually on the team last season, but had to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules. He came to Fayetteville from East Tennessee State, where he hit .300 in three seasons and was a two-time second-team All-SoCon selection.
Van Horn said Smith was one of the biggest surprises of this fall, as he led the team in hitting and on-base percentage. A third baseman and second baseman with the Buccaneers, he is capable of playing all over the infield at Arkansas because he’s an experienced defender. That means he could start at first or even replace Jacob Nesbit at third if he struggles at the plate.
The other option at first is Slavens, who was in the midst of putting up video game-like numbers at Johnson County C.C. when last season was cut short by the pandemic. In 22 games, he hit .507/.543/1.240 with 14 home runs and 47 RBIs, which earned him National Player of the Year honors from JUCO Baseball Blog.
Slavens began his career at Wichita State, where he was moved to the outfield, and then played third base in junior college. He was given a shot there in the fall before moving to first base during the three weeks of preseason practices leading up to the season.
At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Slavens looks the part of a first baseman and seemed to handle the position well in a pair of scrimmages open to the media. Van Horn added that he a fantastic scrimmage defensively to start the final weekend before Opening Day.
“Brady's played a little bit of everywhere in his baseball career, from Little League shortstop to a third baseman to a right fielder,” Van Horn said. “He hasn't played a lot of first…but he's getting better. That's all you can ask, is for a guy to work and get better.”
Arkansas opens the season against No. 3 Texas Tech at 7 p.m. CT Saturday inside Globe Life Field, followed by matchups with No. 13 Texas at 7 p.m. CT Sunday and No. 15 TCU at 6 p.m. CT Monday.