FAYETTEVILLE — Third-ranked Arkansas will travel west today, heading to Arizona to play in the six-team Coca-Cola Classic beginning Thursday.
And the Razorbacks (7-1) remain optimistic they’ll be at full strength for the first time this season during their four games at Sunrise Stadium.
Second baseman Dominic Ficociello (oblique) and pitcher Randall Fant (hamstring) are expected to make their season debuts in the early-season tournament, which Arkansas begins against Arizona State (4-2) on Thursday night. Fant has been penciled in as the starting pitcher for Sunday’s finale against Pacific, while Ficociello is hoping to bat – at the very least – against left-handed pitching.
"It’s been somewhat tough. I missed only two games my first two years here," Ficociello said of his eight-game absence. "I’m really excited to get back out there. I don’t want to rush anything, though. So if something doesn’t feel right then I’m not going to try and jump into it and just play through the pain. The goal is to see how I feel either (today) or early Thursday and kind of go from there."
Ficociello, who originally strained his oblique in the preseason and aggravated it again the day of Arkansas’ season opener, would slide into his starting role at second base and hit in the middle of the lineup if healthy. Jacob Mahan (.350) and Jordan Farris (.333) have manned the position in his absence, combining to hit two home runs with 9 RBIs in Ficociello’s absence.
The switch-hitter said the injury, which is on the left side, was giving him problems when he bats left-handed. So there’s a chance Ficociello could be limited to batting right-handed against left-handed pitching during the tournament.
Arizona State will start lefty Brett Lilek on Thursday, according to PerfectGame.org
"As of right now, considering I don’t know how my side feels swinging left-handed, I’d probably say my chance of playing would probably be around 75 percent because I think we’re supposed to face some left-handed pitching this weekend," Ficociello said. "So I’ll probably play against those guys. But if it turns out that my side doesn’t feel right and they bring in right-handers I’d have to switch over left-handed and coach might pull me out and I’d be perfectly fine with it."
Ficociello did take right-handed swings in the batting cage against right-handed pitching to prepare for the weekend. It’s something he hasn’t done in a game since he was 13 or 14 years old, but Ficociello said it felt "all right Tuesday."
Van Horn said he wasn’t sure if he would put Ficociello in the lineup against right-handed pitching. Or at all. That will be determined by his health this weekend.
"He has a good right-handed swing," Van Horn said. "He said obviously a breaking ball bothers him because it is running away from him instead of coming into him."
Meanwhile, Arkansas originally scheduled Fant to come out of the bullpen for his first appearance after missing two weeks with his hamstring injury. But Van Horn changed his mind and moved the junior into the starting rotation.
He’ll join Ryne Stanek (Thursday vs. Arizona State), Barrett Astin (Friday vs. Gonzaga) and Trey Killian (Saturday vs. Arizona State) in the pitching rotation.
"We’re going to let him go through the whole starting routine," Van Horn said. "His pitch count will be about 40 to 45 if all goes well. Hopefully he gives us three innings and then we’ll go with whoever we have left."
Fant’s hamstring injury derailed what had been a solid offseason for the senior, who went 2-3 with a 3.27 ERA in 14 starts last season.
But Fant said getting his first start in warmer weather — temperatures are expected to be in the 70s this weekend — should help in his return.
"The past couple days it felt really good," Fant said of his hamstring. "I ran a little bit. I threw a couple bullpens already. So I feel confident in it and it feels pretty good. … I told coach yesterday I was ready to get out there."