PREVIEW: Diamond Hogs open 2021 season in Arlington
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Instead of easing into the season with a cupcake, Arkansas is hitting the road for a three-course meal usually reserved for SEC play.
The Razorbacks will open their 2021 campaign with matchups against No. 3 Texas Tech, No. 13 Texas and No. 15 TCU in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, this weekend.
“They’re throwing us out there with the lions,” Matt Goodheart said. “Those Texas schools aren’t anyone to overlook, but I think we’re ready. We’ve got a good squad.”
In recent years, Arkansas has beaten up on the likes of Eastern Illinois, Bucknell, Miami (Ohio) and Central Michigan inside the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium.
The result has been seven straight opening weekend sweeps. The Razorbacks also haven’t lost more than one of their first three games since 2001 and haven’t lost the first game of the season since 1994.
With three prestigious Big 12 programs on the docket, those streaks are in danger this year. However, considering how the 2020 season was cut short because of the pandemic, the coaching staff and players are excited about the challenge.
“It’s going to be great being able to go out there and play against some good competition from the start,” Christian Franklin said. “There are a lot of top 10 teams out there and so it’s going to be almost like playing in the College World Series for opening weekend.”
Here is everything you need to know about the Razorbacks and their opponents ahead of the event…
Schedule (How to Watch)
Saturday - vs. Texas Tech - 7 p.m. CT (FloSports)
Sunday - vs. Texas - 7 p.m. CT (FloSports)
Monday - vs. TCU - 6 p.m. CT (FloSports)
A historic winter weather event that hammered the campuses of all six teams in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown led to the event being pushed back a day, as it was originally scheduled to start Friday.
All nine games - including the Razorbacks’ three games - will be available for streaming on FloSports, a subscription service. Click here for more information on how to sign up.
Arkansas’ Starting Rotation (2020 stats)
Saturday - Jr. RHP Zebulon Vermillion (5 games/0 starts, 1-0, 1 save, 0.00 ERA, 12 K/0 BB, 7 1/3 IP)
Sunday - Fr. RHP Peyton Pallette (4 games/0 starts, 0-0, 1 save, 1.59 ERA, 3 K/3 BB, 5 2/3 IP)
Monday - Sr. LHP Lael Lockhart (4 games/4 starts, 1-2, 4.58 ERA, 19 K/8 BB, 17 2/3 IP)
The Razorbacks have moved Vermillion from the back end of their bullpen to the starting rotation. Traditionally a heavy fastball pitcher, he said now he’s more confident about mixing in more breaking balls and changeups.
He also said he doesn’t view the change from closer to Friday night starter as much of a difference, even though the right-hander has never started a game at Arkansas,
“It’s the same mindset,” Vermillion said. “I just feel like I’m closing more. I’ll go out and throw an inning and picture I’m closing, go out the next inning, picture I’m closing, and just keep going until they tell me to stop.”
In Game 2, Arkansas is going with a second-year player who showed some potential as a freshman before the 2020 season was cut short.
However, Pallette has made significant strides to earn a spot in the rotation, with his fastball increasing from 91-92 mph to consistently 95-plus, even touching 97, 98 mph. Being a year older has helped from a mental aspect, as well.
“I feel like from a year ago I’ve developed a more competitive attitude and developed my changeup a lot (and) got my breaking ball working really good,” Pallette said. “I’m confident that if I want to throw an inside fastball to a righty or lefty I can do it. Same thing on the other half of the plate.”
Several different players could have gotten the ball in Game 3, including freshman Jaxon Wiggins, but head coach Dave Van Horn opted to go with Houston graduate transfer Lael Lockhart, who had been the Cougars’ Friday night starter.
A couple of names noticeably absent from the rotation are Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander, who were starters as true freshmen on the 2019 College World Series team.
Wicklander had a good fall and seemed to be in position to win a starting job, but the left-hander struggled during the preseason scrimmages in the weeks leading up to the season.
It was the other way around for Noland, who had a 2.00 ERA in three starts as the Friday night guy last year. He struggled mightily at the end of fall, but has looked better since returning from break.
“His command seems better,” Van Horn said. “He threw pretty well this last outing. If he's not starting, I could see him in a long relief role. He has experience, got good stuff and I think he's bouncing back.”
Click here for a more comprehensive breakdown of the Razorbacks' opening weekend rotation.
In the Polls
Three of the six major college baseball polls have Arkansas at No. 8, but it is as low as No. 22 (Collegiate Baseball). In the Rivals preseason Composite Poll, which combines all of those rankings, the Razorbacks are No. 12.
Each of the six teams in the State Farm College Baseball Showcase - including Ole Miss and Mississippi State - are in D1Baseball’s preseason top 10. However, the Composite Poll has Texas Tech at No. 3, Texas at No. 13 and TCU at No. 15. The Rebels and Bulldogs are No. 5 and No. 7, respectively.
Opposing Starters (2020 stats)
Texas Tech - R-Sr. LHP Patrick Monteverde (1 game/1 start, 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 2 K/0 BB, 2 2/3 IP)
Texas - R-Jr. RHP Tristan Stevens (8 games/0 starts, 2-0, 1.50 ERA, 6 K/3 BB, 6 IP)
TCU - So. LHP Austin Krob (7 games/0 starts, 1-0, 1 save, 0.00 ERA, 15 K/4 BB, 11 2/3 IP)
Arkansas lucked out and won’t face Texas Tech’s or Texas’ preseason All-American on the mound. The Red Raiders are going with Micah Dallas in Game 2, while the Longhorns are opening up the season with Ty Madden and Pete Hansen - who wasn’t completely healthy in the fall - might not pitch at all this weekend.
Until a few weeks ago, it seemed like the Razorbacks might have to face Hunter Dobbins, a hard-throwing right-hander who has been up to 98 mph, but he went down with a UCL injury and will miss the season.
Instead, Texas Tech will throw Monteverde in its opener against Arkansas. A lefty who began his career at a Division III school before transferring to Division II Seton Hill, he was highly recruited last summer when he hit the portal. Monteverde isn’t overpowering, sitting 90-92 mph with his fastball, but he also throws a breaking ball and changeup.
Stevens, the Longhorns’ starter against the Razorbacks, is moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation. He’s going into his fifth year of college, as he began his career at a junior college and is now in his fourth season at Texas.
Krob is also making the transition from reliever to starter. Another left-hander, the Horned Frogs believe he has a lot of potential with a mid-90s fastball, power slider and changeup.
Renewing SWC Rivalries
Older fans likely remember when Arkansas played in the same conference as each of this weekend’s three opponents, as they used to play together in the Southwest Conference.
Texas, in particular, was a big rival for the Razorbacks across all sports. None of the current players were alive when that was the case, but some of them - like Pallette, a Benton native - learned about the rivalry from their parents.
“It means a lot,” Pallette said about starting against the Longhorns. “Growing up, if this says anything, my dad didn’t let anything in the house that was orange. I’m ready to get out there and play them.”
Despite being non-conference opponents for about 30 years, Arkansas has faced all three teams recently and enjoyed quite a bit of success.
The Razorbacks have won four of six games against the Red Raiders since leaving the SWC, but did lose the most recent matchup - which eliminated them from the 2019 College World Series.
The Longhorns snapped a five-game losing streak to Arkansas when they salvaged a two-game midweek split in Austin during the 2019 season. The Razorbacks’ winning streak dated back to the 2012 Shriners College Classic in Houston and included a win in Omaha.
Arkansas actually has an active winning streak against TCU, winning six straight in the series. That includes two victories over the Horned Frogs in the 2019 Fayetteville Regional.
Regardless of what happens this weekend, it’s important not to put too much stock in the results. Baseball is a long season and there is a track record of these types of events not really meaning much in the grand scheme of things.
Back in 2015, Arkansas played in the South Alabama Tournament and went 1-2 with losses to UCF and Maryland sandwiched around a win over host South Alabama. Despite the poor showing, it ended up reaching the College World Series.
The following season, the Razorbacks swept the Shriners College Classic in Houston with wins over Rice, Houston and Texas Tech to improve to 8-0 on the season. However, they ended up losing 13 straight games to end the season and finish 26-29, missing the postseason entirely.
It was a similar story in 2017 and 2018, as Arkansas went 1-2 in early season events only to host a regional and finish national runner-up, respectively.
“These games are important, but it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t go great,” Van Horn said. “You have to continue to get better and learn from your team. Your team shows you what you need to work on and I’m sure this weekend will be a good indication of that.”
There will be only one true freshman in the lineup Saturday night.
Cayden Wallace was the No. 25 overall recruit in the Class of 2020, according to Perfect Game, but the Greenbrier native turned down a lot of money in the MLB Draft to come play for the Razorbacks.
A third baseman by trade, he spent most of his time in the infield during fall ball, but has since gotten a lot more work in the outfield during the three weeks of preseason practice leading up to the season and is projected to start in right field.
“He’s a super hard worker and he’s done a good job since we came back from the break getting a lot of reps in the outfield,” Franklin said. “He’s making big strides. He’s definitely a lot better outfielder than he was before the break.”
Third-year freshman Zack Gregory is going to “see a lot of time” in right field, too, Van Horn said. It helps that Wallace is a right-handed hitter and Gregory hits left-handed.
“I'm not saying they're going to platoon,” Van Horn said. “I think both can hit left on left and right on right obviously. I think Wallace brings a little more power to the lineup. We need that.”
Van Horn added that Wallace will likely hit sixth or seventh in the order because he hopes he’ll add a little power to that part of the lineup.
With Vermillion moving into the starting rotation, the Razorbacks will have a new closer in 2021.
The frontrunner for that job is right-hander Elijah Trest. After struggling with command as a freshman in 2019, he seemed to be ready to make a jump as a sophomore last year.
In seven appearances, Trest gave up only two earned runs in 9 1/3 innings while striking out 10, allowing only three walks and holding opponents to a .212 batting average.
“He’s a guy I have a lot of confidence in,” Van Horn said. “He spots his fastball well. He’s 95-96 mph about every pitch. His slider’s better. It’s got a little more depth this year.”
Van Horn said he could also go with Wiggins, the freshman, because he’s been up to 97-98 mph, plus he mentioned Kevin Kopps and Kole Ramage as experienced guys capable of closing games.