FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn had supreme confidence in his pitching staff last season, leaning on a veteran group that left its mark by recording the lowest team earned run average in college baseball since 1976.
He expressed a much different thought about his 2014 pitchers after watching them compete during Arkansas’ fall baseball schedule.
"We still have got a long way to go," Van Horn said. "I mean, we lost a lot of pitching and that is probably my biggest concern. Who is going to start for us?"
It’s a change from last year, when the Razorbacks cruised through the fall knowing Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin and Randall Fant were weekend starters. But all three have moved on to professional baseball, leaving Arkansas with plenty of questions about the front of its staff when the fall practice schedule began last month.
Van Horn said the Razorbacks continue waiting for answers.
"We lost three conference starters last year and I think this might be the first time in a long time or if ever that I didn’t get at least one weekend starter back," Van Horn said. "So that is a concern for me. When you lose Stanek and Fant and Astin and those guys, they started a lot of games for us last year and actually the last couple or three years. That will be the big question mark still."
The good news: Van Horn does feel good about the bullpen if Arkansas can afford to keep Chris Oliver and Jalen Beeks out of the starting rotation. But for that to happen, pitchers like Colin Poche, Trey Killian and Landon Simpson must respond.
Poche was 0-1 with a 12.00 earned run average in four relief appearances during the team’s seven-game fall series. Simpson, meanwhile, was 0-0 with a 5.79 ERA in three starts. Killian was 1-0 with a 2.08 earned run average in five relief outings.
"All he does is throw strikes and you’ve got to love that," Van Horn said of Killian. "He just needs to be able to put you way with some type of off-speed pitch. A nasty slider. He’s still a work in progress, but I really like the jump he’s made. Physically, he’s a lot bigger and stronger. And then also mentally, I see him as more of a leader."
Freshmen Dominic Taccolini (2-0, 2.57 ERA), James Teague (1-0, 3.00 ERA) and Alex Phillips (0-1, 1.93 ERA), and junior college transfer Jacob Stone (0-0, 5.14 ERA) also started games for the Razorbacks during the intrasquad series.
But Van Horn believe Arkansas’ returning pitchers will be key to success in 2014.
"I think this is going to be a team where it’s going to be up those pitchers that have been in our program to really step it up," Van Horn said.
"They didn’t get a lot of opportunities the last year or two because of the depth and the quality we had in front of them. Now it’s their time."
Anderson, Spoon Slowed By Injuries
Several returning position players were slowed by injuries during the fall.
Junior Brian Anderson — who Van Horn has penciled in as the team’s starting second baseman — suffered a stress fracture in his foot and missed a good portion of the fall. So did sophomore Tyler Spoon, who was diagnosed with a hernia.
Van Horn said neither injury needed surgery.
"We feel like he will be ready to go," Van Horn said about Anderson’s chances of being ready for the season. "He’s a little worn out. He doesn’t even know when he hurt it. He played every game for us last spring. He played summer ball - who knows? He just knew one day it was hurting a lot worse than it had been and had it looked at and evaluated and they found it really quick. It was easy to see."
Catcher Jake Wise also was limited after undergoing Tommy John surgery in the offseason. Wise didn’t catch, but led the team by hitting .538 in four games.
Van Horn wasn’t concerned about the veterans missing time in the fall, though.
"We know what they can do," Van Horn said of the veteran hitters. "It gave the younger guys a chance to get on the field and show what they can do."
Benintendi Earns Starting Job
One of the most impressive performers during the fall was outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who did enough for Van Horn to name him a starter in center field.
The Ohio native hit .235, but still found a way to log the team’s third-best on-base percentage (.519) behind Wise (.571) and Krisjohn Wilkerson (.550). Benintendi drew 10 walks, stole seven bases and scored five runs in the seven-game series.
"He’s one of those guys, he doesn’t come in talking about himself or talking about the glory days and how he did this and how he did that," Van Horn said. "He didn’t talk about it. He just goes out and he plays and every scrimmage he gives you some good at-bats. Whether he takes a walk or fouls off 10 pitches before he walks. …
"He is a very good center fielder. We’ve had (Craig) Gentry and (Brett) Eibner and you could go on and on. Is he in that category? I think time will tell. I think that offensively he’s going to be a very, very good player — already is."
Catcher Blake Baxendale, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, had injury issues again this fall. But they had nothing to do with baseball.
Van Horn said Baxendale was in a scooter accident before fall practice began and hurt his knee. He also injured his thumb in a car accident earlier this month.
Van Horn added that Baxendale’s arm isn’t quite back from Tommy John surgery and he wasn’t in great shape. So he said it has been "a little rough" for Baxendale.
"He didn’t get to practice a whole lot this fall," Van Horn said. "Some of it wasn’t his fault, and some of it was. … He’s got a long way to go, but I think he can get there."