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Arkansas Razorback Baseball Preview

COVID-Canceled Season Sparks Intense Fall as Razorback Baseball Preps For 2021

By Robby Edwards | Photos courtesy of Razorback Communications

Maybe the only thing keeping Arkansas baseball from a 17thNCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years was last year’s COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a season shutdown after an 11-5 start. 

The shortened season contributed to a more intense fall and Fall Series, which the Red Team won over the Black, 4-2. 

“The fall was very competitive,” said head coach Dave Van Horn. “We could put two pretty good teams out there that competed hard. It was a challenge every day. I feel like it was one of the best falls we’ve ever had.”

As usual, Van Horn has talented returnees to mix with highly touted newcomers. One of each are on D1 Baseball’s 2021 list of top 100 prospects. Center fielder Christian Franklin is No. 19 and shortstop Jalen Battles is No. 86.

Last year, Franklin hit .381 with three home runs, 11 runs batted in and 21 runs scored. Two years ago, on the 46-20 College World Series team, he hit .274 with 34 RBI, 42 runs scored and 12 stolen bases.

“The leadership is there,” said Van Horn. “He has power to all fields. He’s throwing the ball better than ever and defensively seems to get better and better. He’s a leader, probably more by actions than verbally. He can get with you a little bit, but for the most part, he’s just going to show you how to do it.”

Battles was rated as high as No. 131 among 2020 Major League Baseball Draft prospects, but when the draft was reduced to five rounds, he came to Arkansas.

“He really made a move in the second half (of the fall), being around a bunch of good hitters, doing a lot of drill work, and experimenting and making changes,” said Van Horn. “He started slow, but in the second half, he was a middle-of-the-order type of threat, hitting the ball as hard as anybody we have.”

In the Fall Series, Battles hit .227. He and Robert Moore are expected to be the middle infield. Moore hit .317 last year with 17 RBI and a .403 on-base percentage. 

“They are both really good shortstops,” said Van Horn. “I don’t think there’s a better second baseman in the country at turning the double play than Robert Moore. For the sake of the team, Robert will play second and Jalen shortstop. Robert plays up the middle, he’s very athletic and aggressive, and has quick hands. Jalen has a little different style. He has long arms, quick feet, a really good arm, turns the double play and comes across the bag as well as any shortstop I’ve had.”

The rest of the infield could have Casey Opitz at catcher, Jacob Nesbit at third and Cullen Smith at first.

Opitz and Nesbit hit .302 and .259, respectively, in 2020. Smith is a transfer from East Tennessee State.

“Smith was at a mid-major (program), and all-conference two years in a row and didn’t get drafted,” said Van Horn. “He did pretty well last fall for us, really worked hard in the weight room and led our team in a bunch of statistics this fall – batting average, on-base percentage, he hit for power and played everywhere (first, second and third).”

Joining Franklin in the outfield could be Matt Goodheart, Bryce Matthews, Zac White and Cayden Wallace.

Goodheart hit a team-best .345 two years ago with 47 RBI. Last year, he hit .302 and had 18 RBI. 

“He had some injuries again at the end of the fall and actually was designated hitter on both teams in our series because we wanted to continue letting him hit,” said Van Horn. “Defensively, fielding and catching, there’s no problem. He will be week-to-week and we’ll see how it looks when we get to January.”

Wallace is a freshman pushing for playing time.

“He runs well and has a tremendous arm,” said Van Horn. “He played third, first and right field, and will work at all three positions. He’s very mature, strong and serious. I wish all freshmen had the same approach – he plans on playing now.”

As for pitching, Van Horn has arms, but it may take time to settle on a rotation.

Connor Noland was 2-0 with a 2.00 earned run average last year; Caleb Bolden was 1-0 (1.12 ERA); Patrick Wicklander was 2-2 (6.32 ERA); and Kole Ramage was 1-1 (4.40 ERA). Relievers include Zebulon Vermillion, Evan Taylor, Blake Adams and Caden Monke. 

“Connor’s velocity was down a little, and with his breaking ball, there was some good and not so good,” said Van Horn. “He knows what he needs to work on and we know where we need to get him. Patrick didn’t have a great fall early, but his last couple of starts, he looked really good. When he’s throwing the ball around the plate, he’s hard to hit.”

Newcomers who could get starts are Lael Lockhart and Jaxon Wiggins. Lockhart was All-American Athletic Conference at Houston in 2019 and Wiggins is a 6-6 freshman from Roland, Oklahoma. 

“Lockhart was steady Eddy all fall,” said Van Horn. “I don’t have a problem giving him the ball on the weekend, and saying go get us five innings. Wiggins is blessed with a lot of baseball talent. He has a big, physical body, an incredible arm and he’s confident. He’s still a freshman so he has good days and bad days, but talent-wise, it’s in there.”

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