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Scrimmages give newcomers shot

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Photographs by Andy Shupe

Arkansas freshman Casey Martin, who was named high school player of the year by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at Lonoke, is competing for the starting third-base job.

With several older players on the mend, Arkansas' young guns will get a chance to prove their worth during the Razorbacks' annual fall Cardinal and Gray series over the next week at Baum Stadium.

The first scrimmage in the best-of-five series begins today at 3 p.m., weather permitting. All scrimmages played inside the stadium are open to the public free of charge.

Among the notable players who will not participate in the series because of injury are outfielder Luke Bonfield (hamstring), Carson Shaddy (wrist) and left-handed pitcher Kacey Murphy (back). Catcher Grant Koch will play in the outfield.

Those decisions open the door for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's freshman class -- ranked third nationally by Baseball America -- to be further evaluated by coaches.

"We've got a really good group," said Dave Van Horn, who is entering his 16th season as Arkansas head coach. "I was excited about the freshman class that showed up.

"There are 13 or 14 in here, and realistically I'd say about 95 percent of them have a chance to contribute this year."

Freshman right-hander Jackson Rutledge will get the start for the Gray team. Rutledge, a 6-8, 260-pound freshman from St. Louis, has a big arm and a fastball that has been clocked at 96 mph.

"I like him a lot," Van Horn said. "He's got a plus-curveball ... and if you talk to the hitters, they don't like hitting off him. He's just wild enough to scare you, but he throws a lot of strikes as well."

Rutledge also has a slider and changeup. Van Horn said his hand size causes his pitches to have good "sink."

"It's almost like the mound is closer to the hitter with a guy that size," Van Horn said. "His release point is out front and it's a little harder to pick up. He can be intimidating because he throws hard."

Some other freshmen to watch in the series include third basemen Casey Martin and Easton Murrell, catcher Casey Opitz, outfielder Heston Kjerstad, and right-handed pitchers Bryce Bonnin and Caleb Bolden. Outfielder Cole Turney, one of the Razorbacks' highest-rated freshmen, is sitting out fall practice to rehab a summer shoulder surgery.

Martin, a Lonoke native who was the 2017 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette player of the year, is battling sophomore Jack Kenley to start at third base. Martin also can play the middle-infield positions or in the outfield.

"Casey is incredibly talented," Van Horn said. "He's the fastest base-runner on the team and has a tremendous arm. He's got big-time bat speed; you can't throw the fastball by him. He's just got to do a better job recognizing off-speed pitches, but a lot of young hitters struggle with that."

Kjerstad, from Amarillo, Texas, has been the team's top hitter this fall, Van Horn said. The 6-3, 195-pounder has grown 4 inches and gained 40 pounds since he was recruited as a possible leadoff hitter, and he now projects more toward the middle of the batting order.

Koch will play in the outfield so Opitz and TCU transfer Zack Plunkett can get the majority of the innings behind the plate during the scrimmages.

"I think [Opitz is] an incredible catcher," said Shaddy, who began his career at catcher and will serve as a coach for the series. "I think he's going to have a really good career here."

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Sports on 10/11/2017

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