Hutch's week-by-week picks, bold predictions for 2021 Diamond Hogs
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The longest offseason in college baseball history will finally come to an end this weekend.
It has been a little more than 11 months since Arkansas - and the rest of the sport - was shut down because the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 is still an issue and could lead to postponements and schedule adjustments throughout the season, but baseball will be played.
Because of that, it’s hard to anticipate games being dropped or added to the slate, so our baseball expert - Andrew Hutchinson - is making his annual preseason predictions based on how the schedule looks as of today…
Opening Weekend - vs. Texas Tech (Feb. 20), vs. Texas (Feb. 20), vs. TCU (Feb. 21)
Arkansas jumps right into things this season, heading to Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, for what is essentially a Big 12/SEC Challenge. It won’t face Ole Miss or Mississippi State this weekend, but will play three ranked teams to start the year.
It has been 27 years since the Razorbacks lost their season opener, but that streak could come to an end against the Red Raiders, who are a consensus top-four team in the preseason polls. The Longhorns and Horned Frogs are each ranked, too.
Winning all three games seems unlikely, as does losing all three. I could see Arkansas going 2-1 or 1-2, but will take the optimistic outlook and go with 2-1 - although I have no idea which game will be the loss.
Week 2 - vs. Southeast Missouri State (Feb. 25-28)
Arkansas fans probably remember Southeast Missouri State as where Trevor Ezell played before transferring and playing his final season with the Razorbacks in 2019. This year, the Redhawks are picked to finish middle of the pack in the OVC. They have a preseason all-conference pitcher in left-hander Dylan Dodd (3.38 ERA, 36 K in 26.2 IP) and a stud shortstop in Tyler Wilber (.406, 3 HR in 17 games), so it could easily steal a game, but I think Arkansas takes care of business with a four-game sweep.
Week 3 - vs. Murray State (March 5-7)
The following weekend, the Razorbacks will welcome another OVC team to Baum-Walker Stadium. The Racers are expected to be better, coming in third in the conference’s preseason poll, and they have a couple of preseason All-OVC players in their lineup. More concerning, though, is Murray State returns two of its three weekend starters: left-hander Shane Burns (2.60 ERA, 24 K in 17.1 IP) is a preseason all-conference pick and right-hander Sam Gardner (1.47 ERA, 18 K in 18.1 IP) began his career at Alabama. I think Arkansas might drop a game this weekend.
Week 4 - at Louisiana Tech (March 12-14)
It isn’t a flashy opponent, but a road trip to Ruston, La., for a weekend series at Louisiana Tech will be a pretty good tune-up for SEC play the following week. Led by Preseason C-USA Player of the Year and preseason All-American outfielder Parker Bates (.422, 8 HR, 28 RBI in 17 games), the Bulldogs could compete with Southern Miss for a conference title this season. Winning this series would be a quality addition to Arkansas’ postseason resume, and that’s what I’ll pick.
Week 5 - vs. Oklahoma (March 16), vs. Alabama (March 19-21)
Riding high from winning a tough road series at Louisiana Tech, Arkansas returns home for its first midweek game of the season and I think it might slip up against the Sooners. It might be a good loss, though, to refocus the team for the start of SEC play.
Alabama has a legitimate ace in left-hander Connor Prielipp, but might not have much else as far as starting pitching. Even if the Razorbacks drop the opener to him, I see them bouncing back and winning the series.
Record: 12-5 (2-1)
Week 6 - vs. Memphis (March 23-24), at Mississippi State (March 26-28)
A two-game midweek series with Memphis will feature two of the top catchers in the country, In addition to Arkansas’ Casey Opitz, the Tigers will bring in Hunter Goodman (.357, 8 HR, 31 RBI in 17 games). He is a preseason All-American by multiple outlets and on the Golden Spikes Award watch list. They could be close, but I still feel like the Razorbacks will win both games.
The last four regular-season matchups between Arkansas and Mississippi State have ended with home sweeps. The Razorbacks don’t want that trend to continue, but the Bulldogs are so good that I think it happens once again.
Record: 14-8 (2-4)
Week 7 - vs. UCA (March 30), vs. Auburn (April 1-3)
The Bears return nine seniors from last year’s team - including a pair of preseason all-conference selections - and are picked to finish fourth in the 13-team Southland Conference. Anything can happen in midweek games, especially against a team loaded with in-state kids who likely wish they could have played for the Razorbacks, so I’m picking an upset for UCA here.
Just as the fan base hits the panic button during a four-game losing streak that includes a loss to an in-state school, Arkansas will do what it always seems to do - bounce back with a vengeance. Sweeps are hard to predict, but give me the Razorbacks capturing some Baum-Walker magic and sweeping the Tigers.
Record: 17-9 (5-4)
Week 8 - vs. Little Rock (April 6-7), at Ole Miss (April 9-11)
Two years ago, the Trojans stunned Arkansas by scoring 14 runs over the final five innings in a 17-7 midweek win. Only a handful players who appeared in that game are still with the Razorbacks, but I still think they get some revenge and sweep the two-game midweek series.
Oxford is a tough place to play and the Rebels have won four straight regular-season series against Arkansas, but that streak ends this year. While it won’t be a sweep, I do think the Razorbacks flex their offensive muscles against Doug Nikhazy or Gunnar Hoglund and take the series 2-1.
Record: 21-10 (7-5)
Week 9 - vs. UAPB (April 13-14), vs. Texas A&M (April 16-18)
Arkansas has dominated the SWAC historically and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue with UAPB, especially with both games at Baum-Walker Stadium. (One of these two games was originally going to be the annual game at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, where the Razorbacks have usually played close games, regardless of opponent.)
The Aggies might not be a preseason top-25 team in any of the major polls, but they are certainly a top-25 caliber team. All of the left-handed arms they have could create some problems, but Arkansas should have enough bats to at least win the series.
Record: 25-11 (9-6)
Week 10 - vs. Grambling State (April 20), at South Carolina (April 22-24)
Several young players should get an opportunity to play against Grambling State, which is a member of the SWAC and shouldn’t cause any problems for Arkansas.
Having won three straight SEC series, the Razorbacks will have their hands full with a road trip to South Carolina. The Gamecocks are a preseason top-25 team, but I like Arkansas to keep the good vibes going by finding a way to win a rubber match.
Record: 28-12 (11-7)
Week 11 - vs. Missouri State (April 27), at LSU (April 30-May 2)
The Arkansas-Missouri State baseball series is arguably a bigger rivalry than the Arkansas-Missouri football rivalry. Simply put, the two teams and fan bases don’t like each other. It’s a great regional midweek matchup. With this year’s game being in Fayetteville, I’ll take the Razorbacks.
Even though Arkansas “killed” the rally possum a couple of years ago, LSU has always been a thorn in its side. Even the Razorbacks’ great teams have had a hard time beating the Tigers, especially down in Baton Rouge, plus Arkansas native Jaden Hill will likely be extra motivated for LSU. It seems to be shaping up for heartbreak in Game 3.
Record: 30-14 (12-9)
Week 12 - vs. Georgia (May 7-9)
Luckily for the Razorbacks, they get to return home to Fayetteville after playing LSU on the road. It’s not easy by any means, but the Bulldogs don’t have Emerson Hancock or Cole Wilcox this year. I believe Arkansas will bounced back by winning the series. It may have a shot at a sweep, but I feel Georgia will salvage the third game.
Record: 32-15 (14-10)
Week 13 - vs. Arkansas State (May 11), at Tennessee (May 14-16)
Little Rock proved anything can happen in these kind of midweek matchups two years ago, but I think the Razorbacks jump on Arkansas State early and win the historic meetings between two programs many thought would never willingly play each other.
Tony Vitello seems to have Tennessee on the right track and the Volunteers could make some noise in the SEC East this year. Winning two in Knoxville is a tall task, so I’m picking a series loss for Arkansas.
Record: 34-17 (15-12)
Week 14 - vs. Florida (May 20-22)
As deep as the SEC West is this year, there’s a chance the Razorbacks could still be mathematically alive for a division title heading into the final weekend of the regular season. They caught a break this year in getting to end the year at home…but not in who they have to play. Florida is the unanimous No. 1 team in the country heading into 2021. Simply put, the Gators are loaded.
I’m picking them to be the first SEC team other than Ole Miss to win a series at Baum-Walker Stadium since LSU in 2017.
Record: 35-19 (16-14)
Postseason Projections: Regional host, but not a top-8 seed
With only 54 games on the schedule, there is enough flexibility for Arkansas to add a couple of games somewhere along the way. If it wins those games and maybe a game or two in the SEC Tournament, the Razorbacks are going to be a borderline regional host. I think they get the nod, but will have to hit the road for a super regional if they get that far.
I have concerns about the weekend rotation, which is why I’m not picking Arkansas to reach the College World Series for a third straight season (yeah, I’m not counting 2020). That said, it’s never wise to bet against Dave Van Horn, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they make yet another run to Omaha.
Surprise All-SEC Selection: Cayden Wallace
The Razorbacks had four players named to the preseason All-SEC first team. Outside of those players - Christian Franklin, Casey Opitz, Robert Moore and Matt Goodheart - I think Cayden Wallace has a shot to be an all-conference performer.
Although he’s just a freshman, the Greenbrier native is incredibly talented. He was a top-25 recruit who likely turned down seven figures to play for the Razorbacks. A third baseman by trade, Wallace will start in right field, but it’s his bat that will keep him in the lineup. He’s my sleeper pick to lead the team in home runs, as I think he’ll have a freshman season similar to what we saw from Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin in 2018.
Starting Rotation Prediction: Jaxon Wiggins emerges as Friday night ace
Even though he went with Lael Lockhart as the Game 3 starter for opening weekend, Van Horn acknowledged that freshman Jaxon Wiggins might have performed better in the preseason scrimmages.
It might be for the best, as getting your first career start at home against Southeast Missouri State might be a better confidence builder than against TCU at Globe Life Field. However, after some action in non-conference play, I think Wiggins will eventually earn a spot in the weekend rotation. My prediction that he’ll emerge as the Friday night ace might be a year early, but he has the talent to do it and these are bold predictions, after all.