FAYETTEVILLE — The 2023 regular season is a week old, and the No. 9 Arkansas Razorbacks (3-1) are gearing up to welcome Eastern Illinois (3-0) for the first weekend series at Baum-Walker Stadium.
The Panthers, an Ohio Valley Conference team from Charleston, Illinois, are making their eighth trip to Fayetteville during the Dave Van Horn era, having won just one of their 20 games against Arkansas in as many years. They opened their 2023 campaign 3-0 with a series sweep of Florida A&M on the road, led by the right-handed starting rotation of Blake Malatestinic, Tyler Conklin and Ky Matthews-Hampton.
Malatestinic will take the bump Friday opposite Arkansas lefty Hagen Smith, who was decisively the stronger of the two aces last weekend. Florida A&M tagged the Eastern Illinois sixth-year senior for four earned runs on nine hits in 5 ⅓ innings. A 10-game starter in 2022, he logged 52 ⅔ innings in 16 appearances to the tune of a 6.32 ERA, and opponents hit .304 against him.
Last time he was in Fayetteville, Feb. 16, 2020, Malatestinic took on the unfortunate role of the first man out of the bullpen against the Hogs. He surrendered a two-run double to Jacob Nesbit in the second, a solo blast to Heston Kjerstad and another two-run two-bagger to Casey Opitz in the sixth. On Feb. 17, 2019, he earned the loss when he gave up a walk-off single to Kjerstad.
Conklin will have the distinction of opposing the weakest link of the Arkansas pitching staff, albeit based on a small sample size, in Will McEntire. The Panther sophomore pitched 30 innings as a freshman, starting in three of his 12 appearances and posting a sub-5.00 ERA, the best of the 2023 trio. He tossed a quality start last Saturday, going six innings with two earned runs.
Although Matthews-Hampton, like Malatestinic, is exercising his extra eligibility, he was in junior college the last time Eastern Illinois played at Baum-Walker. The Aussie started in five of his eight appearances last year, totaling 34 ⅓ innings pitched with a 7.08 ERA and a .315 opponent batting average.
Last Sunday, Matthews-Hampton twirled a six-inning gem, part of a combined shutout of Florida A&M for the series sweep. His Razorback counterpart will be left-hander Hunter Hollan, who made a strong debut last week in Texas.
The Panthers averaged five runs per game in their opening series, while the Hogs have allowed seven per game, creating a moveable-object-meets-stoppable-force-type feel.
Center fielder Lincoln Riley has done most of the heavy lifting atop the Eastern Illinois order, batting .364 with three walks, three runs and three RBIs. Behind him are second baseman Lucas DiLuca and right fielder Ryan Ignoffo, a preseason All-OVC selection. The duo went a combined 2-21 last week, although they drew six walks and struck out just once.
Other notable performers last weekend include catcher Grant Lashure, who went 3-9 with a double, a walk and a run, and third baseman Cole Gober, who went 5-15 with the Panthers’ only home run.
Shortstop Chris Worcester also landed on the preseason All-OVC squad, but he did not see the field during opening weekend.
The Panthers will dig into the batter’s box against the ninth-ranked Razorbacks at 2 p.m. CT Friday, noon Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday at Baum-Walker Stadium. All three contests will stream live on the SEC Network Plus, accessible through the ESPN app.