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Razorbacks set to start season in Texas

by Tom Murphy | February 20, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE — Good thing University of Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn jumped on board the College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field, the new home of the Texas Rangers, when opportunity knocked last year.

If the No. 8 Razorbacks had done the traditional thing and scheduled a home-opening series this weekend, it could’ve been scuttled by the massive winter storm, frigid temperatures and the snow blanket girdling Northwest Arkansas.

As it is, the Razorbacks’ season opener against No. 4 Texas Tech tonight at 7 was pushed back a day by the freak storm that caused power and water shortages for thousands as it dipped down to the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re just glad to have an opportunity to play,” Van Horn said. “We might be very fortunate, obviously, with the weather, to play on the road in a domed stadium.”

Arkansas will open on the road for the first time since 2007 and just the fourth time in Van Horn’s 19 seasons, and it will jump out of the gate into hot competition.

The Razorbacks are also scheduled to face No. 10 Texas and No. 11 TCU while in Arlington, Texas.

“They’re throwing us out there with the lions,” senior designated hitter Matt Goodheart said. “Texas Tech, Texas, those guys, those Texas schools aren’t anyone to overlook.

“But I think we’re ready. We’ve got a good squad, a lot of depth throughout the entire lineup.”

Said second baseman Robert Moore, “As competitors, there’s no other way you’d want it to go.”

The Razorbacks will start veteran right-hander Zebulon Vermillion (1-0, 0.00 ERA in ’20) who allowed no runs in 7 1/3 innings as the closer last season, with 1 save, 12 strikeouts, no walks and 4 hits allowed. Texas Tech will counter with left-hander Patrick Monteverde, who pitched sparingly the last two seasons for Seton Hill (Pa.) after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Razorbacks return six regulars from a lineup that was hitting .310 last year when the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season. The returners are led by center fielder Christian Franklin (.381, 3 HR, 11 RBI), left fielder Braydon Webb (.340, 1, 6), Moore (.317, 2, 17), catcher Casey Opitz (.302, 1, 11) and Goodheart (.302, 3, 18).

Franklin and Moore are on the Golden Spikes Award watch list and the duo is joined by Goodheart and Opitz on the preseason All-SEC team.

Third baseman Jacob Nesbit (259, 1, 9) is also a returning starter. Van Horn said the new starters will likely be junior shortstop Jalen Battles, freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace and grad transfer first baseman Cullen Smith.

“I think we’re going to have some young guys that contribute,” Franklin said of the position players. “We’ve got some guys returning, so we’re going to be really strong on that end.

“And then on the pitching side of things, we have a lot of power arms and a lot of velocity. I’m excited to see what those guys can do during the season as well.”

Van Horn said the Razorbacks will know a lot more about themselves after a weekend against top-flight competition.

“I don’t think as a coach you ever think you’re 100% ready or you’ve gotten everything in as much as you want,” he said. “Sure, you touch on things, but I’ve got a list of things I’ve written down that I wish we would’ve had a little more time on.”

Van Horn said no matter the outcome in Arlington, the Razorbacks will grow and improve throughout the year.

He pointed out the 2016 team’s 3-0 record in an early season classic in Houston and the Razorbacks struggling down the stretch during SEC play that year.

“One year we went 1-2, we had a great year,” he said. “We might have even went 0-3 in a tournament before and ended up being in Omaha [at the College World Series].

Arkansas went 0-3 against Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor — by a combined score 17-12 — in last year’s Shriner’s College Classic in Houston.

Van Horn was asked what Arkansas had to do better this time in Texas.

“We just need to play better,” he said. “We need to play solid baseball. When you have six teams of the top 10 in the D1 poll, that’s six pretty good teams right out the chute. They’ll expose you pretty quick and you’ll find out what you need to work on.

“Sometimes you just have to go down there and try to get better and figure out what your weaknesses are. When you play good teams, they’ll expose them.”

Arkansas figures to be strong up the middle with Opitz at catcher, Franklin in center field and the middle-infield combo of Moore and Battles, a transfer from McLennan (Texas) Community College, Van Horn’s springboard to completing his college career at Arkansas.

“Jalen is an unbelievable defender,” Moore said. “He’s very smooth, doesn’t miss many ground balls in practice. He’s so in control with his body.”

The Red Raiders, led by Big 12 preseason player of the year Dylan Neuse in the outfield, were 16-3 last season.

“They’re extremely talented,” Van Horn said. “I think they’ve got most of their team back, a couple of weekend starters and a couple of transfers. It’s Texas Tech over the last four or five years. They’re going to come at you and they’re going to try to steal third base and do things. … I expect to get their best shot right out of the gate.”

Arkansas is playing its latest season opener since a 9-4 win over Wright State on Feb. 22, 2008.

The Razorbacks have a long-term history against all three teams it will face in Arlington as a former Southwest Conference rival of Texas Tech, Texas and TCU.

They also have active recent histories against all three.

The Razorbacks went 3-0 against the Longhorns in 2018, including an 11-5 victory in a College World Series opener. They split a pair of games the following season in Austin, Texas.

Arkansas went 2-0 versus Texas Tech in 2018, including a 7-4 victory in a winner’s bracket game at the CWS. The following year, Arkansas swept two games from TCU by the scores of 3-1 and 6-0 to win the NCAA Fayetteville Regional before the Red Raiders ended the Razorbacks’ season with a 5-4 decision in a loser’s bracket game at the CWS.

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