FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said he received a phone call from Collegiate Baseball magazine recently.
The publication asked him a simple question: How do you feel about your team being ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll?
“The way I answered it was: ‘I’d be fine with it. We can handle it,’” Van Horn said.
So Arkansas opened preseason practice embracing enormous expectations Friday.
The Razorbacks are the top team in the country, according Collegiate Baseball and the USA Today Baseball Coaches. They don’t hold the No. 1 ranking in the Baseball America or Perfect Game polls, but aren’t far off at No. 3 and No. 2, respectively.
It’s the product of a group that finished 46-22 in 2012 and was one of the final four teams alive in the College World Series. The Razorbacks also return 10 pitchers from one of the nation’s best staffs, including All-America candidates like Ryne Stanek (8-4, 2.82 ERA), Barrett Astin (3-5, 1.99) and Colby Suggs (7-1 1.38).
There are seven position players who logged significant time back as well, led by infielder Dominic Ficociello (.290, 6 HR, 41 RBI), outfielder Joe Serrano (.333, 7 RBI) and catcher Jake Wise (.244, 2 HR, 25 RBI).
Van Horn said the preseason recognition was good, but added his team “didn’t get all giddy” about it. Players said it was expected because of their 2012 success.
“It's a great honor, but we know it's not how you start but how you finish,” outfielder Matt Vinson said. “We are taking it with a grain of salt. We know we have a target on our back now, but that's nothing we didn't have coming into the season.”
Said Astin: “We know we’re going to have highs and we’re going to have lows. We’re just trying to take care of our business, and hopefully we’re No. 1 in the end.”
Arkansas stepped on the field to begin preparing for 2013 with its first full practice Friday, which is three weeks before the Feb. 15 season opener against Western Illinois. The Razorbacks also are scheduled to scrimmage today and Sunday at 1 p.m. in Baum Stadium. The practices are open to the public.
Fall practices and other offseason work have helped Van Horn get a good feel for his opening-day lineup, which is scheduled to include a new-look infield with Ficociello playing second base, Brian Anderson at third base and newcomer Brett McAfee manning shortstop. Van Horn also said his tentative starting rotation for the opening weekend will include Stanek, Astin and Randall Fant.
But Van Horn said the three-game series against Western Illinois is just the beginning of the journey. His team’s long-range goal is to live up to the No. 1 rankings and lofty expectations by returning to Omaha this summer.
“There’s a lot of anticipation for this season,” Van Horn said before his team’s first practice. “Now that it's here, it doesn't seem that last game with South Carolina (in Omaha), that 3-2 loss, doesn't seem that long ago. I think the players are ready to get back on the field and make a run to get back to the College World Series.”
Poche, Meyer Update
Van Horn hasn’t decided on any punishment for freshmen pitchers Colin Poche and Adam Meyer, who were arrested earlier this week for shoplifting.
The two were taken to jail after being observed taking stealing two cases of beer and two sandwiches out of a local Wal-Mart without paying for the items.
Van Horn said both players remain with the team, but face potential suspensions.
“We still are gathering a little bit of information,” Van Horn said. “Just kind of letting you know, once we get it all in there will be a suspension or two and a little bit of extra things that we like to do to guys as far as conditioning.
“But we are still finding out a few things. Hopefully it will go away after we get all the details and these guys will endure what they have to do endure.”
Stanek, Astin and Fant are scheduled to start the first three games. But Van Horn said freshman Trey Killian is talented and could factor into the weekend rotation.
“He really commands the baseball,” Van Horn said. “You set the glove up away, he throws it away. You put the glove in and he throws it in. That’s a gift.
“He’s got good secondary pitches. He’s got a good changeup he throws for a strike. He throws his breaking ball for a strike. He doesn’t act like a freshman.”
Van Horn said Killian is scheduled to pitch in relief during the opener. He’ll also be the likely starter for Arkansas’ fourth game against New Orleans on Feb. 19.
“I think Killian is going to have Friday night stuff one day,” Van Horn said. “And he may have it this year.”