Try­ing to for­get

Ra­zor­backs hop­ing 2017 base­ball sea­son bet­ter than last one.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - TOM MUR­PHY

FAYETTEVILLE — Open­ing day for the Ar­kan­sas base­ball team to­day at Baum Sta­dium comes with a lit­tle more ur­gency than nor­mal in a 3 p.m. start.

For the first time in Coach Dave Van Horn’s 14-year ten­ure, the Ra­zor­backs are not com­ing off an NCAA Tour­na­ment ap­pear­ance. Van Horn and the Hogs are ea­ger to start putting 2016, and their cur­rent 13-game los­ing streak, in the rear-view mir­ror.

“We’ve got some­thing to prove this year. That last year was just a fluke,” ju­nior in­fielder Chad Span­berger said. “It won’t hap­pen again this year.”

Van Horn had led 18 con­sec­u­tive teams at Ar­kan­sas and Ne­braska to the tour­na­ment be­fore the Hogs’ late col­lapse, which led to a 27-29 record, in­clud­ing 7-23 in the SEC.

“As a coach, you al­ways won­der if you’re go­ing to be ready,” Van Horn said. “I’m ex­cited that the weather is go­ing to be good and for the op­por­tu­nity to play some­body else.”

The tem­per­a­ture is pro­jected to be 65 de­grees with low hu­mid­ity and no chance for rain for to­day’s 3 p.m. first pitch against Mi­ami (Ohio) (27-29) of the Mid-Amer­i­can Con­fer­ence.

Ar­kan­sas will start sopho­more right-han­der Blaine Knight (2-1, 2.98 ERA) against Mi­ami’s ace right- han­der Cole Gnetz (4-2, 3.75) in the opener of a three-game set.

“Good arm, good curve­ball,” Ar­kan­sas out­fielder Luke Bon­field said of the scout­ing re­port on Gnetz. “So we’re go­ing to be ready for that. Play­ing in the SEC, we see a lot of good arms.”

The RedHawks were 14-10 in the MAC East last sea­son, fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the di­vi­sion, six games be­hind Kent State. They were pro­jected to fin­ish sec­ond, again be­hind Kent State, in a pre­sea­son vote of the league’s 11 coaches.

“I think they’ll be as good as some of the teams that we opened up against,” Van Horn said. “The right-han­der we’ll see Fri­day has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence, and the left­hander [Zach Spears] we’ll see Satur­day started a lot of games.

“They have a re­ally good

bullpen. … They have a plan, and their plan is to build a lead and get those guys in.”

Mi­ami re­turns its top two hit­ters in first base­man Ross Haf­fey (.355, 11 HR, 48 RBI) and out­fielder Tyler Har­ris (.289, 7, 25), a Shiloh Chris­tian grad­u­ate who trans­ferred last year from Mis­souri State.

Ar­kan­sas pitch­ers are ex­pected to be more ag­gres­sive with added ve­loc­ity un­der first-year pitch­ing coach Wes John­son.

Knight, a Bryant grad­u­ate, opened 2016 in the start­ing ro­ta­tion, but moved back and forth to the bullpen, mak­ing seven starts and 11 re­lief ap­pear­ances. He added to his reper­toire in the off­sea­son.

“All my pitches are stronger than last year,” Knight said. “Ve­loc­ity went up on my fast­ball work­ing with Coach John­son. My break­ing ball is a lot bet­ter, change-up is a lot bet­ter, and I de­vel­oped a cut­ter over the fall that I re­ally like now and will be one of my main pitches over this year.”

Sopho­more right-han­der Isa­iah Camp­bell, who pro­jected as a week­end starter based on fall and spring work­outs, is ques­tion­able with tight­ness in his pitch­ing arm.

The Ra­zor­backs were last in the SEC with a 5.02 ERA last sea­son, but they were in the mid­dle of the pack with a .275 team bat­ting av­er­age.

Ju­niors Car­son Shaddy (. 332) and Bon­field (. 304), the team’s top two hit­ters last year, are back to lead the of­fense.

Shaddy is start­ing at sec­ond base, his fourth start­ing po­si­tion in three years. Bon­field, com­ing off a deep quad bruise suf­fered in the last 2016 se­ries, is back in left field.

“I think we’re go­ing to be a re­ally good mix,” Bon­field said. “We’re go­ing to be a mix of power and speed. Guys who can fight to get on base and not strike out a whole ton. And we’ve got some guys who will strike out some. It’s a re­ally good mix to be a suc­cess­ful of­fense.”

Pro­jected start­ing first base­man Jared Gates suf­fered a bro­ken ha­mate bone in his right hand and will be out at least five weeks, trig­ger­ing a cou­ple of moves on the Ar­kan­sas in­field. Span­berger, who was tar­geted to play third base, will move to first, and ju­nior col­lege trans­fer Hunter Wil­son will get the nod at third base.

Span­berger said the Ra­zor­backs are ready to get sep­a­ra­tion from last May’s swoon.

“What did we end on, a 13-game streak last year?” he asked re­porters. “Some­thing like that. This first win, it’ll be nice to get.”

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