Feb. 15, 2013

CBI SEC Preview


Razorbacks Look to Perform up to Expectations

By David Furones

Special to College Baseball Insider


The Arkansas Razorbacks weren’t expected to go as far as they did in last year’s NCAA tournament.


Even after sweeping through the Houston Regional as the No. 2 seed, it was perceived to be over for the Hogs once they suffered an 8-1 loss to Baylor in Game 1 of the Super Regionals. But the resilient bunch would win consecutive one-run games to punch its ticket to Omaha.


Once there, Arkansas got itself in good position by winning its first two games. But on the cusp of the finals, the Razorbacks lost two straight to SEC-rival South Carolina to end their season.


This year, anything short of the College World Series would be considered a disappointment. The Razorbacks come into the season ranked No. 1 in the NCBWA, Collegiate Baseball and USA Today polls.


“It’s an absolute honor [to be ranked No. 1],” said junior second baseman Dominic Ficociello (left), who last year hit .290 with six home runs and 41 RBI. “I think we definitely earned it. I think we’ve got the talent to be ranked that high, and I think we have the experience to be ranked that high.”


While the Razorbacks are a complete team, the backbone comes in the strength of the pitching staff. Arkansas last year had a team ERA of 2.83.


“We expect a lot out of ourselves and people expect a lot out of us, so we’re going to go out there and work as hard as we can to go out there and get the job done,” junior right-hander Ryne Stanek said.


Stanek will anchor the rotation and start on Fridays, last year’s closer Barrett Astin will take the mound on Saturdays with fifth-year senior left-hander Trent Daniel pitching on Sundays.


“It’s pretty exciting because it’s the first time that I’ve had this opportunity,” Stanek (right) said of getting the start on Opening Day. “I’ll just go up there and try and make the most of it.


“I’ve been ready to play for months now, since Omaha was over I was ready to get after it again just because of how it felt after we finished the season last year.”


Randall Fant, who started 14 games last year, and freshman Trey Killian also will figure into some starts. Fant is dealing with a hamstring injury to start the season. Arkansas will start off with a closer-by-committee to wrap up games early in the season.


Junior right-hander Colby Suggs, who last year registered a 1.38 ERA in 30 appearances out of the bullpen, will work in along with Astin if he ultimately returns to last year’s role.


Arkansas’ lineup has been holding up against the strong Razorback pitching staff in intra-squad scrimmages.


“It’s encouraging to see,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn (left) said during a press conference last week. “Hopefully it transitions into the season.”


One question mark comes in how the Hogs will replace the offensive production of third baseman Matt Reynolds, who led the team in virtually every offensive category and was drafted in the second round of last year’s MLB Amateur Draft by the New York Mets.


“It’s a tough loss obviously, but at the same time we’re not losing too much because I feel Brian Anderson will fill in perfectly for him,” Ficociello said of Anderson, a sophomore who in his freshman season hit .283 in 120 at-bats. “He’s got a great glove just like Matt did; he’s got a cannon of an arm – actually probably a little better than Matt’s.


“I think he has a pretty good chance to put up close numbers to what Matt put up last year, and on top of that, we’ve got other guys in the lineup where I think Brett McAfee, with him now at short you have more firepower than we did with Tim Carver last year, even though Tim had a great year [.299/2/30].”


McAfee is looking to produce in the bottom of the lineup. The 6-4 Ficociello (left) will move to second base and hit cleanup in the lineup with redshirt sophomore Eric Fisher coming in to play first.


Van Horn addressed Ficociello’s move to the middle infield at a recent press conference.


“Is he big for a second baseman? I think he is, but he’s quick,” he says. “I like the range. I like the long arms.”


Ficociello, Anderson and Fisher will be joined in the middle of the lineup by redshirt freshman Tyler Spoon.


“[Spoon’s] going to be a guy that not many people know about, but his game’s going to spread pretty quick because he can really hit,” Ficociello says.


Outfielders Matt Vinson and Jacob Morris are likely to be hitting in the 1- and 2-holes on the lineup card with Vinson, who has improved his contact approach and cut down on his strikeouts, likely leading off.


(photos by Walt Beazley/UA Media Relations)