With a dangerously elite level of play in nearly all aspects of play so far this season, Arkansas’ baseball team has put the rest of the nation on red alert.
The Hogs are ranked No.1 in five of the six major polls, including Baseball America (first time at No. 1 since 1981), Collegiate Baseball, D1Baseball, NCBWA and the USA Today Coaches polls. They are 7-0 so far this year, with wins over ranked teams like Texas Tech, Texas and TCU.
The Razorbacks have had to grit out a few games. Not all of them have been pretty or smooth. But they have delivered when it mattered most.
Below are key reasons for Arkansas baseball’s scalding start:
Confidence and Determination
The Razorbacks have been the embodiment of determination so far this season. Their confidence in themselves and each other is a big reason why.
The offense has not gotten off to the best start in most of their games, which has meant the Hogs have fallen behind early in four of their first five games. But they battled back in each of those games.
Indeed, they have made three comebacks in the eighth inning or later already.
The first game of the season was a sign of things to come.
The Razorbacks started the season in a wild back-and-forth rally with Texas Tech. The Hogs fell behind 5-1, but then scored 12 runs in four innings, including five in the ninth. They won 13-9 with six lead changes.
Then, against TCU, Arkansas trailed 1-0 after seven innings. The Hogs tacked on two runs in both the eighth and ninth innings to win 4-1.
In the series opener with Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas surrendered two runs in the 8th inning and went down 5-2. The Razorbacks came back with three runs of their own in the bottom of the 9th (almost four on Robert Moore’s near walk-off home run). Arkansas won the game on a walk-off single from junior shortstop Jalen Battles, who remained confident throughout the game.
“We always know we’re never out of the game,” Battles said after the comeback victory. “I told them we were going to win this game. We just had to stay locked in the whole time.”
Arkansas Baseball’s Timely Hitting
So far this season, the entire lineup for the Arkansas baseball team has been clutch.
They have been one bad at-bat away from losing a game multiple times, but the Hogs have come through each and every time.
Every time the other team starts to get ahead and gain momentum, the Razorbacks have been able to answer back swiftly.
When Texas Tech scored five runs in the fifth inning, Arkansas scored four runs to tie the game in the sixth. Tech added three in the seventh, but Arkansas brought five to the plate in the ninth.
SEMO scored two runs in the eighth inning, but the Hogs answered with three in the ninth to send the game to extra innings. In game two, SEMO scored the first two runs of the game in the third inning, but the Razorbacks took away all their momentum with two runs of their own in the bottom of the inning.
Jalen Battles has been the most clutch player on the team so far this season at the plate. Between the two big comebacks Arkansas made, Battles hit 5-10 with five RBIs in those games. He is tied for the team lead with eight RBIs through seven games and is batting .583 with runners in scoring position.
After the Red Raiders scored five runs in the bottom of the fifth inning, Battles knocked in the first two runs of the sixth inning and scored the tying run.
He also tied the game in the ninth inning against Texas Tech and scored the tying run in the eighth inning against TCU. Against SEMO, he knocked in the first run of their three-run bottom of the ninth, scored the tying run and hit the walk-off single in the 10th inning of that game.
Senior catcher Casey Opitz has also helped spark these rallies. He got the first hit in each of those 9th inning rallies and in the 10th inning rally as well. He scored the tying run against Texas Tech and the winning run against SEMO.
The Razorbacks have also shown off impressive power this season, especially against SEMO. After hitting only one home run in Texas, Arkansas exploded for 10 long balls against the Redhawks in 3 ½ games.
Junior center fielder Christian Franklin went deep in each of the first three games at Baum-Walker Stadium. Junior first baseman Brady Slavens, who hit the only home run in Texas, is tied with Franklin for the team lead of three home runs.
Freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace, who struggled in Texas, launched two balls over the fence in the last three games. He had been hitting the ball hard right at the defenders, but recently the balls have been finding holes or landing beyond the fence for him.
“One through nine we’re capable of hitting home runs,” Van Horn said.
Through seven games in 2020 the team had 11 home runs as well, but No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad had four of them by himself and the team had not gone to Texas for the Shriner’s classic yet. They had only faced Eastern Illinois and Gonzaga.
In 2019 the Hogs were not hitting for much power. They hit four balls beyond the fence on opening day, but only hit two home runs in the next six games. They have certainly gotten off to a better start from a power standpoint.
Jalen Battles and Casey Opitz
(Bottom of the Order Hitting)
Another key to Arkansas’ success this season has been the hitting from the bottom of the order. At times last season it felt as if any potential rallies or big innings were stopped when the Razorbacks got to the bottom of the lineup.
The main reason for that has been Battles. As previously mentioned, he leads the team with eight RBI and with 11 hits.
He and Opitz are hitting .379 and .381 respectively which lead the team, besides senior designated hitter Matt Goodheart who has hit .500 in his only two games played.
Opitz also has drawn four walks, giving him an on-base percentage of .480. He has always been good at drawing walks, but his bat has struggled in the past.
In 2019, he drew 38 walks and had a .379 obp in 58 games, but only hit .243 with six extra-base hits. His slugging percentage was just .311
In 2020, he hit .302 with eight extra-base hits in just 16 games. His slugging jumped to .509. This season he is slugging .478.
Slavens has been very good in the middle of the order. He leads the team with nine runs scored and is tied for the team lead in home runs and RBIs with three home runs, eight RBIs. His .357 batting average is third on the team.
The bullpen for Arkansas has been very good for the most part. This season, the bullpen has allowed 13 runs over 35 ⅓ innings. That comes to a 3.31 ERA.
If the Texas Tech game, where the bullpen allowed seven runs over five innings, was removed then the bullpen ERA drops to 1.78, or six earned runs allowed over 30 ⅓ innings in the last six games.
Compared to the last two seasons where the bullpen had a 2.64 and 3.00 ERA in 2020 and 2019, this has been an impressive six game stretch.
The bullpen did not allow a run in three games, including the Texas and TCU games.
Both Patrick Wicklander and Connor Noland came in on relief duty against SEMO. Wicklander pitched four scoreless innings and Noland threw 4 ⅔ shutout frames.
Expanded Roster/Great Recruiting Class/Added Roster Depth
Since COVID-19 ruined last season and the MLB Draft was shortened to just five rounds from the usual 40, the NCAA has adjusted their roster policies. Players did not lose their year of eligibility last season, the scholarship number rose from 27 to 32, and the 25% scholarship minimum has been waived.
This season, teams have no roster limits, compared to the usual 35 player cap. This has allowed Arkansas to create a larger roster with even more depth than usual. They currently have 46 players on the roster.
This gives Arkansas extra arms in the bullpen and extra bats who can come off the bench. The extra pitchers will come in handy when the bullpen runs thin when used for a lot of innings. It also takes pressure off of starters to pitch deep into games.
The bullpen depth came in handy as Arkansas played seven games in nine days.
Not many starting pitchers have had to go deep into any games so far this season. The longest start by a Razorback this season has been five innings by Peyton Pallette.
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The Razorbacks also brought in arguably one of their best recruiting classes in program history. This helps give them quality depth, not just anybody coming off of the bench. They also brought in quality transfers such as Jalen Battles and Brady Slavens.
The Arkansas Razorbacks have a stacked roster in 2021 and will look to keep their No. 1 ranking deep into the year.
“I feel good about our team, where we’re at,” Dave Van Horn said. “Bottom line you need to win games and we’ve been winning them whether we played real well or just okay.” The ability to win games when not playing lights out is the sign of a truly elite team.
How far that could take Arkansas baseball in 2021 is yet to be seen, but the returns so far are very impressive.
Van Horn and his predecessor, Norm DeBriyn, built Arkansas baseball into a monster. Learn how in this superb interview: