Well, folks, it’s that time of the year again. Start of baseball season. For Arkansas, it begins tomorrow at home against the Illinois State Redbirds. The Hogs have not dropped their opening game since before the turn of the century. They always start the season on a high note, but are still waiting to finish on the highest of notes.
Arkansas is coming off a 50-13 season in which they won the SEC regular season and tournament championship as well as being the No. 1 seed going into the NCAA tournament.
The Redbirds, meanwhile, are coming off a 23-34 season. Illinois State does own the 8-7 victory in the teams’ most recent matchup in 2020, during an Arkansas five-game losing streak a week before baseball was shut down for the year.
Four Redbird hitters who played in that game are still on the roster. Kyle Soberano started at second, Aiden Huggins is listed as a utility player but started at shortstop in 2020, Ryan Cermak who is listed as an outfielder started that game at third and first baseman Jake McCaw made a pinch hitting appearance.
Four pitchers from the previous matchup remain on the roster in Colin Wyman, Connor Peplow, Derek Salata, and Erik Kubiatowicz. Against Arkansas, they combined for 4.1 innings giving up three runs on 10 hits allowed.
Only outfielder Braydon Webb and second baseman Robert Moore remain on Arkansas from that game’s starting lineup. Pitchers Elijah Trest, Zack Morris and Zebulon Vermillion remain on the Arkansas roster and combined for 2.1 innings allowing two runs on two hits in the previous matchup.
Illinois State can look out for preseason SEC first-team selection Robert Moore as well as second-team selections Cayden Wallace and Brady Slavens. The Razorbacks also boast the preseason SEC freshman of the year in Peyton Stovall.
In 2021, Moore led the team with 16 home runs while Wallace and Slavens each knocked 14 over the fence. Slavens led the team with 63 RBIs while Moore and Wallace had 53 and 44 respectively.
On defense, the Razorbacks should keep an eye on McCaw who hit .367 with three home runs and 27 RBIs in 2021, while Cermak hit .284 with 11 home runs and 40 RBIs and led the Redbirds in both the latter categories last season.
Arkansas pitcher Connor Noland is another player to watch. According to head coach Dave Van Horn, he is pitching better than ever and is on track to be the Hogs’ Friday night starter in 2022.
Arkansas’ keys to victory are to throw strikes and be aggressive. Illinois State did not allow a ton of walks in 2021, so the Hogs need to be aggressive and take a hack at any good pitches they see. If the Redbirds aren’t giving Arkansas free base runners, then it could be detrimental for the Razorbacks to allow free bases to Illinois State. The Hogs have an outstanding defense, so it would be wise to rely on them to make some plays as well.
Arkansas vs Illinois State
Game 1: Friday, February 18 (3:00 p.m.)
Illinois State: RHP Jordan Lussier (6-3, 4.36 ERA)
Arkansas: RHP Connor Noland (1-0, 6.91 ERA)
Watch: SEC Network+
Arkansas vs Illinois State Game 1 Prediction:
Arkansas should win opening day pretty handedly. Over the past five seasons, the average opening game score for Arkansas is 11-4.
The season opener may require a few at-bats to get the bats warmed up to game situations. Even if the bats need to knock a bit of rust off, the lineup is stacked with hitters and power. Connor Noland is likely to start game one, so Illinois State should struggle to score if Noland can translate his success from the preseason scrimmages. The game may start slow and build as it progresses and each team gets into the bullpen.
Score Prediction: 12-3 Arkansas
Game 2: Saturday, February 19 (12:00 p.m.)
Illinois State: LHP Sean Sinisko (5-5, 4.44 ERA)
Arkansas: LHP Hagen Smith (0-0, 0.00 ERA)
Watch: SEC Network+
Game 2 Prediction:
Day two should also go to Arkansas. In each of the last four seasons, the margin of victory in game two has been the same or higher than opening day, including a 32-4 trouncing of Bucknell in 2018. The Redbirds are starting a left-hander, which could frustrate Razorback hitters. The talent of Arkansas should carry them past the Redbirds either way. It could be a blowout or be a low-scoring pitchers duel if the hitters can’t figure out the lefty.
Score Prediction: 6-1 Arkansas
Game 3: Sunday, February 20(1:00 p.m.)
Illinois State: RHP Derek Salata (2-4, 4.95 ERA)
Arkansas: RHP Jaxon Wiggins (3-1, 5.09 ERA)
Watch: SEC Network+
Game 3 Prediction:
This game will likely see a number of fresh bodies playing for Arkansas. The talent of the Razorbacks’ freshmen and reserves should still be enough to challenge and beat Illinois State, however if there’s a bunch of freshmen playing then inexperience could get the better of them. Dave Van Horn will undoubtedly find a good balance however. It will be the more interesting game if there are a number of young players taking the field. The Razorbacks have swept their opening series the last eight seasons since 2013.
Score Prediction: 11-7 Arkansas
Arkansas vs Illinois State Series Prediction
The Razorbacks will take care of business in Baum-Walker Stadium. Arkansas should come out with a sweep, but two-of-three is a possibility as well. There should be a bunch of players getting an opportunity to play over the weekend.
LF Jace Bohrofen
3B Cayden Wallace
2B Robert Moore
RF Brady Slavens
C Michael Turner
DH Chris Lanzili
CF Zack Gregory
SS Jalen Battles
Friday: Connor Noland
Saturday: Hagen Smith
Sunday: Jaxon Wiggins
The Razorbacks have a lot of talent, but there’s a number of guys who are not projected starters that could see time over the weekend. The talented roster still has some competition going on.
Braydon Webb will likely see time over the weekend. He and Gregory split time in left field in 2021, so they could have a similar situation this year.
Youth Movement for Arkansas Baseball
Top-150 recruits Drake Varnado (93), Max Soliz Jr. (119) and Kendall Diggs (141) could all see time over the weekend or early in the season. Diggs is a left-handed hitter with a nice swing and Varnado is a quick shortstop with a good glove, so both may see some action. Soliz Jr. is a big power-hitter who could slot into a DH easily.
Jude Putz and Gabe D’Arcy could also find themselves in action over the weekend. Dylan Leach who is competing for a spot with Michael Turner could get a start behind the plate this weekend as well.
Zebulon Vermillion and Heston Tole will likely see innings over the weekend to some some experience on the mound. There are a number of freshman pitchers who will compete for starts later and may see some innings over the weekend, including Brady Tygart, Vincent Trapani, Nicholas Moten, Jake Faherty and Austin Ledbetter.
Arkansas should take home a sweep of Illinois State and a lot of players will make appearances over the weekend.
Feature photo via Baumology (Rhett Hutchins)