Diamond Hogs set rotation for Opening Weekend in Texas
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FAYETTEVILLE — Zebulon Vermillion has completed the transition from closer to Opening Day starter, head coach Dave Van Horn announced Thursday.
The right-hander will start Saturday night against Texas Tech, Arkansas’ first game of the 2021 season. He’ll be followed by right-hander Peyton Pallette against Texas on Sunday and left-hander Lael Lockhart against TCU on Monday.
All three starters will be limited to only 70-75 pitches at the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, Van Horn said.
Two names noticeably absent from the Razorbacks’ opening weekend rotation are Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander, who started as freshmen on the 2019 team that reached the College World Series, but they are still expected to have a role on the staff, whether it’s starting or in long relief.
“We're just trying to go with the guys we feel like, as of right now, are maybe just a step ahead of some guys,” Van Horn said. “That doesn't mean that's the way it's going to be the whole season, obviously.”
At least for the first weekend of the season, Vermillion will get the ball for Game 1.
Last year, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior struck out 12 batters in 7 1/3 scoreless innings across five appearances before the season was cut short by the pandemic.
Vermillion likely would have been drafted in a normal year, but the shortened MLB Draft led to him returning for a fourth season with the Razorbacks and now he’s getting a chance to start.
“If he only gives us three or four (innings) this first weekend, we’re good with that,” Van Horn said. “We’ll just continue to build him up. I just want his innings to be quality. If he struggles going into the third or fourth inning, we’ll get somebody ready and get him when we need to go. If he rolls, we’ll let it roll.”
Pallette’s start against the Longhorns is the result of an offseason in which he gained about 15 pounds, leading to a significant increase in velocity.
As a freshman last year, the Benton native came to Fayetteville with a fastball around 91-92 miles per hour. Now Pallette is consistently throwing 95-plus and has touched the upper-90s, plus he’s developed his changeup and breaking ball.
“He’s been able to maintain his velocity,” Van Horn said. “He’s gone a little above that. He’s got a really good breaking ball and what he does is he throws strikes, he competes, he can field his position. The future’s bright if he stays healthy.”
Arkansas had several options for Game 3, but Van Horn said he was going with Lockhart against the Horned Frogs. The graduate transfer from Houston pitched well in his final preseason outing and has experience as a Friday night starter with the Cougars.
That ultimately gave him the edge over freshman Jaxon Wiggins, a hard-throwing right-hander from Oklahoma. He was the No. 129 overall recruit in the country, according to Perfect Game, and was viewed as a potential MLB Draft pick coming out of high school.
“There’s two or three guys we could’ve put in that spot,” Van Horn said. “If you really go on how guys have performed, maybe we should throw a freshman there, but we just decided with the whole situation, maybe let the younger guys watch a little bit.”
Van Horn said they’ll still try to give Wiggins an inning or two out of the bullpen this weekend, but there’s a good chance he starts the Razorbacks’ home opener next Thursday against Southeast Missouri State because of the quick turnaround.
Right-handers Caleb Bolden and Kole Ramage are fourth-year players who have started several games during their time in Fayetteville and could also be called upon to start next weekend. However, much like Noland and Wicklander, they’ll be asked to come out of the bullpen to begin the season.
“If we’re going to be good, those guys are going to have to buy in to whatever role they have,” Van Horn said. “Before it’s all over with, they’ll all be in the role that they’ve earned here and it’ll make us better.”
At least going into the season, it doesn’t seem like Arkansas has a true ace like Blaine Knight in 2018 or Isaiah Campbell in 2019.
The Razorbacks do have more depth, though, and could cycle through several pitchers before settling on a rotation in SEC play, which is scheduled to begin March 19 against Alabama.
“A lot of people were concerned that it wasn’t clear cut there for a while,” Matt Goodheart said. “I kind of look it at more of a good thing because they didn’t make it difficult to choose because nobody was standing out in a good way. They made it difficult to choose because so many guys were standing out in a good way.”