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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn walks back to the dugout after speaking to his players Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, during practice at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville. - Photo by Andy Shupe

FAYETTEVILLE -- Dave Van Horn left the attendees of the first meeting of the University of Arkansas' Swatters Club on Monday with a piece of advice in advance of Friday's season opener against Eastern Illinois.

"Be patient," Van Horn asked of the crowd. "We'll figure this out. We've got a lot of things to figure out."

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ARKANSAS BASEBALL

vs. Eastern Illinois

WHEN 3 p.m. Friday

WHERE Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville

2018 RECORDS No. 12 Arkansas (48-21, 18-12 in SEC); Eastern Illinois (23-31, 12-18 in OVC)

COACHES Dave Van Horn (643-364 in 17th year at Arkansas); Jason Anderson (59-105 in 4th year at EIU)

RADIO Razorback Sports Network. Not all games will be carried by all affiliates. Check local listings.

The Razorbacks indeed have questions. Coming off a 48-win season, their highest total in Van Horn's 16 seasons, and the program's second appearance in the College World Series final, the Razorbacks lost weekend starters Blaine Knight and Kacey Murphy as well as five starting position players and key bullpen arms in Barrett Loseke and Jake Reindl.

"I know you guys are interested in who's going to do what, and so are we to be honest with you," Van Horn said.

"We were meeting this morning and still trying to flip guys around. By the time we get it figured out, we're going to be in the heart of the schedule."

Van Horn said junior right-hander Isaiah Campbell and freshman right-hander Connor Noland would make two of the three starts against the Panthers this weekend.

The third starter is up in the air.

"Connor doesn't even know that yet, so I'll go tell him right now," Van Horn said. "But yeah, he's gonna be in there ... on Saturday or Sunday and obviously Campbell will throw Friday."

The third starter is likely to come from the group of right-handers Jacob Kostyshock, Cody Scroggins and Kole Ramage or left-hander Patrick Wicklander. At one point during his address, Van Horn suggested Wicklander might come out of the bullpen during the opening weekend.

"There's three or four other guys," Van Horn said. "They've all been throwing really well. So what you see this weekend might be different than what you see against USC."

After the three-game set against Eastern Illinois, the Razorbacks will play against Southern California in Los Angeles in a Thursday-through-Saturday series.

The top priority for Van Horn and first-year pitching coach Matt Hobbs is to make sure the bullpen, featuring ace closer Matt Cronin, is stable.

"I just want to make sure that we have a deep, strong bullpen," Van Horn said. "That's a big concern of mine. We have the guys. It's just a matter of if we want to take one of those guys out and start him."

Van Horn said the bullpen has "a bunch of weapons" and that "if we get to the seventh inning with the lead you're going to have a hard time beating us."

Another top concern is the back end of the batting order.

Van Horn suggested returning standouts Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad -- who have moved to shortstop and right field -- and center fielder Dominic Fletcher would probably bat in the 1, 2 and 4 spots with Trevor Ezell hitting third. He projected Matt Goodheart, a designated hitter/first base candidate like Ezell, might protect Fletcher in the five hole.

That would leave projected starters in left fielder Christian Franklin, catcher Casey Opitz, third baseman Jacob Nesbit and likely second baseman Jack Kenley to occupy the final four spots in the lineup.

"We've got to have some guys [at the bottom of the order] produce a little bit, and it's been really up and down," Van Horn said. "I look at it like this. Our pitchers are pretty good. But they're SEC guys and they've gotten us out pretty good for the most part.

"We've had nine scrimmages, or that's what we're going to finish with before we open up, and the pitchers have won most of them. Let's put it that way."

One of the top position battles has been at first base, where Jordan McFarland, a part-time starter last year trying to break out of a hitting slump, is competing against Goodheart and Ezell. Kenley appeared headed toward a starting role at third base, but Van Horn is leaning toward playing him at second base to further bolster the up-the-middle defense. Ezell, coming off a procedure where seven staples were put in his throwing shoulder, is not ready yet for daily work at second base, Van Horn said.

Opitz and Zack Plunkett will probably split the catching duties throughout the season, though Van Horn said Opitz is targeted to start on opening day with a bit of a lead.

"What he's ahead of [Plunkett] at is his receiving," Van Horn said. "They both throw well and they both throw people out in practice and pick people off and they both block well. But Opitz is a really, really polished receiver, probably one of the better guys in the country."

The Razorbacks host Eastern Illinois at 3 p.m. for Friday's season opener, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Sports on 02/12/2019

Print Headline: Van Horn: Team in tweaking mode

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