By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn has hinted at the possibility all preseason, so it was hard to say the change was a surprise.
Talented freshman Ryne Stanek will be on the mound when Arkansas opens its three-game series against Utah in Baum Stadium tonight. He replaces the Razorbacks’ top pitcher, sophomore DJ Baxendale, in the starting rotation. But it’s not like Baxendale did anything wrong.
“He had a great outing last Friday,” Van Horn said Thursday afternoon. “But we just felt like Stanek, we needed to get him a start.”
So Arkansas will get a good look at one its young pitchers in a starting spot, while Baxendale works out of the bullpen in a role Van Horn has considered for quite some time.
Stanek, a right-hander, heads a rotation that includes sophomore Geoffrey Davenport (1-0) and freshman Brandon Moore (1-0). Van Horn is curious to see how the youngster responds.
“I don’t think he gets all rattled,” Van Horn said. “We’ll find out. That’s what we’re really trying to find out. If he gets behind or is behind in the count or the scoreboard, let’s see how he handles it. I’d rather find out now than a couple weeks into conference play that we made a mistake throwing him out there.”
Stanek gave Arkansas plenty of reason to be confident in his first outing last Saturday.
Coming out of the bullpen, he didn’t allow a hit or run in four innings during Arkansas’ 9-2 win against Delaware State. Stanek struck out six batters, walked two and Van Horn said afterward it could soon lead to a start.
It was the type of performance Arkansas knew it could get from Stanek when the Kansas native couldn’t agree to terms with the Seattle Mariners after last season’s draft. Stanek, the organization’s third-round pick, called Arkansas’ coaches minutes after the deadline to sign a contract passed last summer and the Razorbacks celebrated his official addition.
So did Stanek, who said it was a taxing.
“It was a long process,” Stanek said before the season. “It’s not as much fun as you’d think it was going to be. It was stressful.
“It was nice knowing it was done. It just felt like a weight was lifted off.”
While he steps into the starting spot, Baxendale’s role won’t diminish out of the bullpen this weekend. In fact, it may grow.
Van Horn said this preseason he was tempted to use the team’s top returner multiple times a series. He said Baxendale earned the right to start the season on the mound, but was too valuable to pitch only once a week.
Van Horn said Baxendale has been open to the role, which will be similar to what Jay Sawatski played during his career. And Stanek said Baxendale’s willingness has been key.
“He’s just out there trying to help us win,” Stanek said. “That’s why you want in a leader on the pitching staff. You want someone who wants to be out there, but he’ll do anything it takes to help us win.
“That says a lot about him.”
Stanek will become the first Arkansas freshman to start on a Friday since Nick Schmidt in 2005. Van Horn said Schmidt started that season in the Friday role by default, but didn’t let go of it for three seasons and finished his career as one of the program’s best.
Will Stanek do the same? Arkansas could find out beginning with his first start today.
“I think we’ll see what he can do,” Van Horn said. “I think it will be a little bit up and down. Hopefully he’ll pitch well. We’ve got some good pitchers in the pen that will be ready to go if it doesn’t go well.”