There was so much to love about the 2021 Arkansas Razorback baseball team that it’s still hard to negatively obsess over the season’s finish.
Kevin Kopps captivated everyone’s attention and admiration with a scintillating individual effort. That carried the Hogs through a dreamlike regular season, a shocking coast to the program’s first-ever SEC overall and tournament titles.
Then, a game shy of Omaha, Arkansas’ once-potent bats stalled. North Carolina State, unfazed by an opening-game pasting in the Super Regional, silenced the Hogs on consecutive days in June. And there was the inescapable tragic element: Dave Van Horn’s reliance on Kopps went too far at the wrong time. A ninth-inning solo homer blunted a Hog comeback, sent the Golden Spikes and consensus National Player of the Year off the mound dejected, and stunned a fan base that’s become hellbent on seeing a championship placard on Baum-Walker’s adorned walls.
Not “OmaHogs,” sadly, but “Nomaha,” if I may be permitted some pathetic poetic license.
When the sting of the defeat wore off, though, Van Horn’s 19th Hog team was clearly his best. Going into his 20th year, even without Kopps, Van Horn’s latest bid to finally claim a College World Series crown will have a great nucleus. But there has already been one preseason setback of significance, and if these Razorbacks hope to eclipse them all, pitching development will be at the forefront.
Kopps was a sixth-year senior whose phenomenal campaign (12-1, 0.90 ERA, 11 saves and a whopping 131 strikeouts) was the culmination of mental and physical toiling. He worked on mechanics after having his elbow rebuilt in 2018, and his repertoire of slider, cutter and changeup simply baffled even the best hitters in the country.
As the season wore on, though, Arkansas’ lack of quality depth behind Kopps started to show. Patrick Wicklander was excellent in his own right, but also opted for professional dollars after a strong bounce-back campaign.
Peyton Pallette of Benton stood out among newcomers, and he appeared primed to take on the ace role in ’22. That all changed last month when the unflappable righty tore his ulnar collateral ligament and underwent the same Tommy John surgery from which Kopps bounced back so prolifically.
Deprived of that prospective front-end starter, Arkansas now places its weight on a more untested corps. Jaxon Wiggins flashed promise in his freshman campaign, his numbers (3-1, 5.09 ERA, 28 K in 23 IP) skewed by a couple of rough outings. The tall right-hander likely takes the ball on Fridays now, and considering his longest outing in ’21 was 3 and two-thirds innings, expectations should be modest.
Behind Wiggins, starting experience is thin but not easily discarded. Connor Noland returns for his senior year, and had 19 starts as a freshman. Zebulon Vermillion had six starts a year ago, and Kole Ramage has logged 10 more than four years of productive work. Freshman Hagen Smith is expected to replace Wicklander as the rotation’s southpaw, the highly-touted Texas product boasting high-grade velocity and movement.
The bullpen won’t be short on raw arm talent. Returnees Elijah Trest, Heston Tole, Gabe Starks and Zack Morris all saw varying degrees of action a year ago, and freshmen like Brady Tygart, Nick Moten and Austin Ledbetter will get long looks as both spot starters and situational relief.
Last season’s Razorback team was indisputably a powerful one, and that aggressive approach will not change. While Christian Franklin, Matt Goodheart and postseason heroes Charlie Welch and Cullen Smith all departed, there’s a potent quartet back in the mix.
Second baseman Robert Moore smoked a team-high 16 homers and is a preseason All-American in some publications. The right side of the infield definitely took a hit when first baseman Brady Slavens sustained an ankle injury late in the year; his power (14 homers and 63 RBI) will be an asset in the heart of the order too.
Shortstop Jalen Battles flourished down the stretch and brings five-tool talent to the middle infield with Moore; sophomore Cayden Wallace, meanwhile, registered 14 homers and 44 RBI in an impressive freshman season where he largely played right field. The Greenbrier product may get extended looks at third base and center field as well early in the year.
It will be hard to keep freshmen Peyton Stovall and Drake Varnado out of the lineup. They rated as the jewels of Van Horn’s latest class of collegiately inclined heavyweights, opting to play in Fayetteville in lieu of the considerable promise of professional contracts.
Casey Opitz’s savvy at bats and experience behind the plate will be sorely missed. There’s a capable slew of successors behind the dish, though, with returnee Dylan Leach, Kent State transfer Michael Turner and massive freshman Max Soliz Jr. all in line to get opportunities.
In the outfield, with Wallace being a potential positional flex, highly regarded Oklahoma transfer Jace Bohrofen and newcomer Gabe D’Arcy are both big bodied, versatile players. Zack Gregory and Braydon Webb both made substantive contributions a year ago, and will figure into the mix due to their defensive prowess.
Arkansas 2022 Baseball Schedule
Feb. 18-20 – Illinois State
Feb. 25 – Indiana (Round Rock Classic)
Feb. 26 – Stanford (Round Rock Classic)
Feb. 27 – Louisiana-Lafayette (Round Rock Classic)
March 4-6 – SE Louisiana
March 10-13 – UIC
March 15-16 – Grambling
March 18-20 – Kentucky*
March 25-27 – at Missouri*
March 29-30 – Little Rock
April 1-3 – Mississippi State*
April 5 – UCA
April 8-10 – at Florida*
April 12-13 – UAPB
April 14-16 – LSU*
April 19-20 – Arkansas State
April 22-24 – at Texas A&M*
April 26 – vs. UCA (at Dickey-Stephens)
April 29-May 1 – Ole Miss*
May 3 – Missouri State
May 6-8 – at Auburn*
May 13-15 – Vanderbilt*
May 19-21 – at Alabama*
May 24-29 – SEC Tournament (Hoover, Ala.)
Home games in BOLD