The road to Omaha begins across all of college baseball Friday afternoon, with the Arkansas baseball team trying to make it back to the College World Series for the fourth time in five tries.
There won’t be any easing into things with in front of their home crowd and against a mid-major program, though, as the Razorbacks will get an early taste of Omaha right out of the gate by playing in the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas.
They will face a trio Big 12 teams — Texas, TCU and Oklahoma State — that are ranked in various preseason polls at Globe Life Field, home of MLB’s Texas Rangers. Vanderbilt and Missouri will also be there representing the SEC, creating a Big 12/SEC Challenge of sorts.
“The guys are a little more serious about it,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “They know we’re going to have to play really well if we’re going to win. A lot of times when you open at home, it’s a little easier — you’re in your own element, environment.”
It will be the first time Arkansas has played a real game since losing a 2-0 heartbreaker to eventual national champion Ole Miss in the semifinals of the College World Series, one game shy of the championship series.
A large chunk of that team has moved on, with two-thirds of the 2023 roster consisting of newcomers, but this will be far from the first time these new-look Razorbacks will share a field together. They played numerous intrasquad scrimmages over the fall and three weeks leading up to the season.
That said, playing at a climate-controlled venue, especially one as nice as Globe Life Field, and against actual opponents will be a nice change of pace. It will also give Van Horn an idea of what to expect when the team enters SEC play in a month.
“The guys are just ready to play somebody else — I think scrimmaging gets real old,” Van Horn said. “We’re going to be playing some great competition in a really nice environment. We know the temperature’s going to be good, the weather’s going to be good.
“There’s going to be a lot of fans. It should be fun. But I think more than anything this weekend, we’ll learn a lot about our team and really what we need to work on going forward.”
Former Razorbacks Also in Arlington
Fans in Arlington might recognize some familiar faces even when the Razorbacks aren’t on the field this weekend, as both Texas and Missouri landed transfers from Arkansas baseball this offseason.
Right-handed pitcher Heston Tole, who had some good moments during his two years in Fayetteville, is now pitching for the Longhorns. When asked about him during a Zoom teleconference featuring all six head coaches, Texas baseball coach David Pierce joked that he’d start the opener against his former team.
That obviously isn’t the case, as Tole will likely come out of the bullpen, just as he did at Arkansas. In 20 career appearances with the Razorbacks, he had 40 strikeouts and only five walks in 26 1/3 innings. However, after limiting opponents to a .195 batting average as a freshman, opponents hit .339 against him this past season, leading to a decreased role.
“I think Heston has fit in really well,” Pierce said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s going to pitch for us, but I don’t know the exact role. He’s doing really well.”
Dylan Leach is now at Missouri, which isn’t on Arkansas’ regular season schedule. So, barring a matchup in the SEC Tournament, Arkansas won’t actually get to face him this year. Still, as of a couple of weeks ago, he was the frontrunner to be the Tigers’ starting catcher.
Leach will always be remembered for hitting for the cycle and homering from both sides of the plate in the same game last season, but that midweek game against Central Arkansas accounted for five of his 13 hits on the year, as he hit just .224 as a sophomore before transferring.
“He’s come in and established himself as a leader,” Missouri baseball coach Steve Bieser said. “He’s got the experience from being there at Arkansas and being in the College World Series. He’s been outstanding for us and really meshing in with an entirely new group.”
Newcomer to Watch: Caleb Cali
Most Arkansas baseball fans are well aware of returning starters Peyton Stovall and Brady Slavens. They may even know about guys like Jace Bohrofen and Kendall Diggs, who weren’t regulars in the lineup, but got their fair share of playing time in 2022.
Those players make up less than half of the Razorbacks’ projected starting lineup, though. The rest will consist of newcomers like Tavian Josenberger and Jared Wegner.
However, it’s a relatively unknown JUCO transfer who fans should get acquainted with sooner rather than later. Caleb Cali was a first-team All-American at the College of Central Florida last season, but is still a relatively unknown player at the national level.
If he hits like he has this offseason, or anywhere close to it, that will change very quickly.
In public scrimmages viewed by the media this fall and preseason, Cali went 31 for 71 with 8 doubles, 7 home runs and 28 RBIs. That works out to a .437/.500/.845 slash line and 1.345 OPS.
“All he ever did was hit,” Van Horn said. “He had an incredible year last year at the JUCO… Is that going to work at this level? He’s proved that he can hit our pitching, so he should be able to hit just about anybody out there. Hopefully he can just relax and stay within and do what he can do. But he’s been a good player so far.”
How to Watch the College Baseball Showdown
Dates: Feb. 17-19
Friday — vs. Texas — 7 p.m. CT
Saturday — vs. TCU — 7 p.m. CT
Sunday — vs. Oklahoma State — 2:30 p.m. CT
Location: Arlington, Texas (Globe Life Field)
Scouting the Opponents at the College Baseball Showdown
2022 record: 47-22 (14-10 Big 12)
2022 postseason: No. 9 overall seed, College World Series (0-2)
Preseason ranking: RV in composite (No. 24 in Perfect Game & USA Today Coaches)
Preseason poll: 4th in Big 12
Head coach: David Pierce (7th season)
One of the most dominant programs in the history of the sport, Texas baseball has ended each of the last two seasons in Omaha, even reaching the College World Series semifinals two years ago. However, the Longhorns are returning only three of their 10 players who started 40-plus games in 2022.
All six of their regulars who posted an OPS of at least .900 are gone, including Golden Spikes Award winner Ivan Melendez. They do return outfielders Dylan Campbell and Eric Kennedy, though, as well as shortstop Mitchell Daly. The Longhorns were also successful in the transfer portal, bringing in likely contributors in Tanner Carlson (Long Beach State), Garret Guillemette (USC) and Porter Brown (TCU).
Considering the schools are historic rivals, dating back to their days together in the Southwest Conference, and the fact that both have large a large fanbase in the metroplex, expect a great atmosphere for the season opener.
“It’s going to be electric,” Texas baseball coach David Pierce said. “I really believe that the fan base is so ready for college baseball and being an indoor event, you know they’re going to show up. You’ve got two really good teams that have great history, so it’s going to attract a lot of people — not just people from Fayetteville and Austin, but just college baseball fans.”
2022 record: 38-22 (16-8 Big 12)
2022 postseason: College Station Regional (runner-up)
Preseason ranking: No. 15 in composite (No. 14 in Baseball America & Perfect Game)
Preseason poll: 1st in Big 12
Head coach: Kirk Saarloos (2nd season)
Expectations for TCU baseball are pretty high entering Kirk Saarloos’ second season at the helm. The Horned Frogs return five of the seven players who started 55-plus games last year, including third baseman Brayden Taylor, who earned second-team All-Big 12 honors after hitting .314 with 13 home runs as a sophomore.
He was just one of five preseason all-conference selections for TCU, which also has two of its outfielders (Austin Davis and Elijah Nunez) and two of its relievers (right-handers Luke Savage and Garrett Wright) on the team.
Throw in a top-10 transfer class, according to D1Baseball, and Preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year Anthony Silva, and it’s easy to see why the Horned Frogs were picked to win the conference by the league’s coaches.
Oklahoma State Baseball
2022 record: 42-22 (15-9 Big 12)
2022 postseason: No. 7 overall seed, Stillwater Regional (runner-up)
Preseason ranking: No. 11 in composite (No. 8 in USA Today Coaches)
Preseason poll: 2nd in Big 12
Head coach: Josh Holliday (11th season)
The weekend finale will be a rematch of what Dave Van Horn described as the “most intense regional I’ve ever been a part of,” as the Razorbacks had to beat Oklahoma State twice on its home field on the way to the College World Series.
Roc Riggio, known by Arkansas baseball fans for prancing around the bases following a home run in that regional, is back after hitting .295 with 11 home runs as a freshman. So is Marcus Brown, the Arkansas native who hit .316 for the Cowboys last season. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Razorbacks will also have to deal with two-way standout Nolan McLean again despite him being taken in the third round of last year’s MLB Draft.
All three of those guys were named preseason All-Big 12, with Riggio and McLean also picking up some preseason All-America accolades. They provide a solid core for a team picked just behind TCU in the Big 12, but ranked ahead of the Horned Frogs in most national polls.
Pitching Matchups at College Baseball Showdown
Arkansas: So. LHP Hagen Smith
Texas: Jr. LHP Lucas Gordon
With projected ace Jaxon Wiggins going down with a torn UCL and needing Tommy John surgery, Arkansas has slid sophomore Hagen Smith into the Friday night role. He was a heralded recruit who turned down a lot of money to play college baseball. Last year, Smith was the No. 2 starter behind Connor Noland and posted a 4.66 ERA with 90 strikeouts in 77 1/3 innings, earning Freshman All-America honors.
He wasn’t quite the workhorse that Pete Hansen was, but Lucas Gordon’s ERA was actually 71 points lower at 3.05. He also had a solid 1.13 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 85 2/3 innings, which earned him second-team All-Big 12 honors for last season and landed him on this year’s preseason all-conference team.
“He’s their most experienced pitcher and (threw) a lot of innings last year,” Van Horn said. “That’s a tough league and if you’re coaches preseason pick — I guess that’s who voted — you’re pretty good.”
Arkansas: R-Jr. RHP Will McEntire
TCU: Jr. RHP Cam Brown
It wasn’t until halfway through last season that the Razorbacks finally gave Will McEntire his first chance since showing a lot of promise in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Despite redshirting in 2021 and not pitching at all the first half of 2022, he ran with the opportunity and didn’t look back. McEntire ended up being one of Arkansas’ best arms, finishing with a 2.59 ERA and holding opponents to a .198 batting average in 48 2/3 innings.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Cam Brown made nine starts as a sophomore and posted a 4.42 ERA. That number doesn’t jump off the page, but he pitched arguably his best game of the season when it mattered the most, not allowing a single earned run in eight innings of an elimination game against Louisiana-Lafayette at the College Station Regional.
Arkansas: Jr. LHP Hunter Hollan
Oklahoma State: TBA
Even before Wiggins got hurt, Hunter Hollan was pushing for a spot in the weekend rotation. A heralded JUCO prospect, he’s ranked as the 81st-best prospect in the upcoming draft by MLB Pipeline and is coming off a season in which he was the ace of a San Jacinto J.C. team that reached the NJCAA World Series.
It is unknown who the Cowboys will start in their final game of the weekend, as they’ve left it as TBA.
2023 Arkansas Baseball Projected Lineup
Best of Arkansas Sports published a detailed lineup projection around Christmas, but a few things have changed since then. Position battles have been settled (for now) and a couple of things needed to be tweaked. Here’s an updated look at how we believe the lineup will look this weekend…
|1. Tavian Josenberger||CF|
|2. Peyton Stovall||2B|
|3. Caleb Cali||3B|
|4. Brady Slavens||1B|
|5. Jared Wegner||LF|
|6. Jace Bohrofen||RF|
|7. Hudson Polk||C|
|8. John Bolton||SS|
|9. Kendall Diggs||DH|
The most notable change in our projection is John Bolton getting the nod at shortstop over Harold Coll, the talented JUCO transfer. However, Bolton — a transfer from Austin Peay — earned the right to start by being more consistent in the field. While not as big of an offensive threat as Coll, he showed he’s capable at the plate by hitting .375 and striking out only once in 26 plate appearances in the public intrasquad scrimmages during the three-week preseason.
Another bit of a surprise came in the form of Caleb Cali locking down the starting job at third base. Comments made by Dave Van Horn during the fall seemed to indicate he was behind Kendall Diggs defensively, but the pair has since flipped positions, with Diggs now at DH after Cali proved to be solid at the hot corner.
“We had a need for him to play third (and) that’s what he wanted to play coming in here,” Van Horn said. “Whether he could do it or not, he had to go prove it to us, and I think he’s shown that he’s pretty good over there. He’s had days when it didn’t go good, but a lot of guys do. But I feel like that he works at it. He cares about being a good defender.
It’s also worth noting that Van Horn said backup catcher Parker Rowland would also get some work behind the plate this weekend, but he wouldn’t platoon Diggs and likely won’t do much shuffling outside of catcher.
“The human side of you wants to…take care of guys that have worked hard and I feel bad about it, but at the same time, we have a lot of games and their time’s coming,” Van Horn said. “That’s what I tell them — just be the best teammate you can.
“If you don’t play opening weekend or you play a little bit, you just show what you can do when you get in there, do your job and you’re going to get more opportunity.”
Composite College Baseball Top 25
Unlike football and basketball, which have just the AP and Coaches Polls all year (with football adding the CFP rankings late in the season), college baseball has six major polls. To get a better feel for how teams stack up, BoAS has combined those rankings into a single top 25 by using a points system in which a No. 1 ranking = 25 points, No. 2 = 24 points and all the way to No. 25 = 1 point. We will update this each week throughout the season…
|5. Texas A&M||SEC||121|
|7. Wake Forest||ACC||108|
|10. Ole Miss||SEC||98|
|11. Oklahoma State||Big 12||83|
|12. North Carolina||ACC||78|
|13. Miami (Fla.)||ACC||74|
|15. TCU||Big 12||65|
|16. Maryland||Big Ten||55|
|17. Virginia Tech||ACC||54|
|18. East Carolina||AAC||50|
|20. Southern Miss||Sun Belt||35|
|21. Texas Tech||Big 12||33|
|t-23. Oregon State||Pac-12||17|
|t-23. North Carolina State||ACC||17|
- SEC: 8
- ACC: 7
- Pac-12: 4
- Big 12: 3
- AAC: 1
- Big Ten: 1
- Sun Belt: 1
More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…