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Van Horn pleased with the talent as No. 2 Razorbacks begin practices

As Arkansas takes the field for its first official baseball practice Friday, Head Coach Dave Van Horn is faced with a good problem to have. With so much talent at each position and on the pitcher’s mound, the veteran skipper is now tasked with deciding who to put on the field.

The Razorbacks are looking to reach the College World Series for the fourth time in six years, and will open the season ranked No. 2 in the Perfect Game Preseason Top 25, and No. 3 in the D1Baseball poll.

Not only do the Diamond Hogs have a solid core of returning players from last season’s SEC championship team, but they also added some key pieces from the transfer portal. Add to that the top incoming freshman class in the nation, and you face a dilemma.

The Hogs are slated to hold three intrasquad scrimmages over the next four days, taking Saturday off due to weather and the Razorback Invitational track meet being held next door. The first pitch will be thrown at 2 p.m. on Friday and noon on Sunday.

Van Horn said no position battles will be settled this first weekend, as he is just looking to get his players back on the field for live-game action. Arkansas opens the season on Feb. 16 in a four-game home series against James Madison.

“Really, the second weekend, the third weekend we will really have to start making some decisions,” he said. “This first weekend, let’s just see what happens.”

The pitching staff looks to be stellar, top to bottom, from the starting rotation to the bullpen. That unit will be headlined by junior All-American lefty Hagen Smith, who made 11 starts and had seven relief appearances as a true-sophomore last season.

The 6-foot-3 hurler finished with an 8-2 record and a team-leading 3.64 ERA, while adding a pair of saves. He also struck out 109 batters in 71.2 innings of work, which has all garnered him a plethora of national hype heading into this season.

“He’s handled it really well,” Van Horn said of his ace. “There have been years that we’ve had guys that were projected high picks and they stressed out over it, maybe changed their routine. We just tell our guys to do what you do every day.”

Although Smith is sure to be a high-round draft pick in June, he doesn’t seem to be letting that affect the way he prepares and performs.

“If you talk to him, it’s amazing, he just wants to win at the highest level, as a team,” Van Horn said. “And I think that’s why the players love him so much, is he just works. He’s not a big talker, but he’s been a lot more vocal this year because he knows he’s older and it’s probably his time. You can’t outwork this guy. His stuff has been amazing and I’m excited for him and his family, but I’m excited for our team because we have him on our team.”

Smith will also be surrounded by a wealth of arms that should boost the starting rotation and the bullpen production for the Razorbacks.

Highly touted freshman Hunter Dietz will be a key piece to the staff, but his presence will be put on hold to start the season. Rated the nation’s No. 5 left-handed pitcher by Perfect Game in the 2023 Class, Dietz recently underwent a minor procedure that will likely keep him out until early April.

“He’s already back to practice,” Van Horn said. “He’s doing all the drills. He’s not throwing to hitters or anything, yet. They just went in there and took care of a problem that he brought with him,”

Texas Tech junior transfer Mason Molina should also be a huge addition to the staff. The 6-foot-2 lefty was an All-Big 12 performer last season, leading the Red Raiders with six wins, 83.1 innings pitched, 108 strikeouts and a 3.67 ERA.

Although all the roles have not been defined, Van Horn is pleased with his options for starters, as well as the weapons he will have out of the bullpen.

“The bullpen is shaping up fine,” he said. “We have some really good arms. Obviously, they’ve got to go out and do it in a real game. We feel like we’ve got a really good mix or left -and right-handed pitching. The right-handed pitching is usually there, but having some options left-handed out of the pen is a big-time plus for us this year.”

The offensive attack is bolstered by the return of junior second-baseman Peyton Stovall, who is back at full-speed after suffering a torn labrum last season. He started 38 games in 2023 and has a career .277 batting average over the past two seasons, with 11 homers and 62 RBIs, along with a shining .992 fielding percentage.

Teamed with incoming sophomore shortstop Wehiwa Aloy – a Freshman All-American at Sacramento State last season – the Diamond Hogs will have a formidable middle infield.

“Man, Peyton’s been amazing – fielding and the accuracy of his arm has been great,” Van Horn said. “Getting him and Wehiwa playing together, playing catch together every day, getting to know each other – that’s one big thing, because you just want the middle infielders to know what they are doing before it happens.”

There will be a battle at first base between returning senior Ben McLaughlin and Tarleton State grad transfer Jack Wagner, who hit .337 for the Texans last season, with 15 home runs, eight doubles, four triples and 56 RBIs.

“One hits left and one hits right, but one can also DH,” Van Horn said. “Wagner can actually play some outfield if we needed him, But that’s a thing that is going to be ongoing, and that’s a good thing It’s healthy competition amongst teammates.”

With returning junior Kendall Diggs solidified in right field and Missouri grad transfer Ty Wilmsmeyer probably manning center field, the only real questions is in left. That will likely come down to returning sophomore Jayson Jones, Hutchinson Community College junior transfer Will Edmunson and Missouri senior transfer Ross Lovich.

“We’ll just have to see how that plays out,” Van Horn said. “Wilmsmeyer in center is our best defender, but we have Hunter Grimes and some other guys battling. We’ll just have to see how that all turns out. I think it will just be a work in progress, but if it comes down to just defense, it will be Wilmsmeyer.”

Story originally appeared on Razorbacks Wire