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Generally the best way to tell if it’s time for Razorbacks baseball is to look at a thermometer. If it’s freezing in Fayetteville, there’s a good chance Dave Van Horn’s Arkansas squad is prepping for the season.
That’s not been the case this year. The northwest Arkansas winter has been so moderate that the No. 22 Diamond Hogs have gotten plenty of outdoor work in preparation for their season-opening series against Central Michigan.
Arkansas plays host to the Chippewas at 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday, launching Van Horn’s 14th season as the Razorbacks’ skipper.
“Their coach called me to set up this series a couple of years ago,” Van Horn said. “I told him that he must have some guys. When a coach calls wanting to play an early series, you know he likes his talent. They are picked to win their division in the MAC and have a veteran ballclub.”
With all due respect to the Chippewas, Van Horn is more concerned with how his team is developing than with their opening opponent. Making an NCAA Regional has become routine for the Razorbacks, who have played in the postseason tournament every year under Van Horn. The goal this year is to return to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series for a fifth time during Van Horn’s tenure.
After a 15-15 start last season, the Razorbacks pulled it together and won 20 of their final 29 games to earn a Regional bid. They rode that momentum all the way to Omaha.
Van Horn hopes the Diamond Hogs reach the same destination, but he’d like them to take a more direct route this season. Consistency will be the key, something the Razorbacks have lacked in preseason practices.
“I think the kids are excited, maybe more so than the coaches,” Van Horn said. “We never think we’re ready this early. With baseball you play so many games that sometimes you just play your way into roles whether it’s as a starter or working out of the bullpen or with the the batting lineup.
“The biggest issue for me right now is the consistency of our position players and then determining the roles of the pitchers.”
Van Horn said returning to Omaha isn’t something that he talks a lot about with his Hogs, but the goal is understood.
“The way it works around here, just the culture, we plan on challenging to go to Omaha by the end of the season,” Van Horn said. “We feel like we have just as good a chance as anyone to make it there no matter what our record is, who we play or where the (NCAA) sends us. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about it.
“We have a sign at the end of the tunnel going out to the field that speaks of earning it every day and the last word on it is Omaha.”
Van Horn said talking about the College World Series more would just add pressure.
“The lingo from the coaches is that we just need to get better every week,” Van Horn said.
The Razorbacks are without last year’s star Andrew Benintendi, the winner of the Golden Spikes Award and SEC Player of the Year honors. Benintendi was a first-round pick by the Boston Red Sox. The Diamond Hogs also lost cleanup batter Tyler Spoon, who is also in the Red Sox organization.
“There’s been a lot said about Andrew, and obviously he deserves it, but Tyler Spoon batted right behind him and did a great job,” Van Horn said. “Losing the three- and four-hole hitters and a lot of production, that’s scary for our coaches.”
Van Horn’s not looking for any one player to attempt to pick up the slack.
“Rarely are you able to replace a player statistically like Andrew,” Van Horn said. “In the MLB, you trade for someone close, but in college it’s about recruiting and developing players. We’ve got to have a collective effort. It’s about four or five guys all having better years to make up for the loss of guys like Andrew and Tyler.”
The Razorbacks have senior experience in the middle of the infield with returning shortstop Michael Bernal and second baseman Rick Nomura.
“Mike and Rick are probably the coaches’ biggest comfort area,” Van Horn said. “Those two guys know what’s up. They aren’t intimidated or scared. They are probably the best double-play combination in the league.”
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