Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A two-time graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Biletnikoff Award.
Homegrown pitchers leading Arkansas
Jalen Beeks delivers a pitch during Arkansas' game against LSU on April 12, 2014 at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. LSU won 5-4.
FAYETTEVILLE Norm DeBriyn has seen about all there is to see at Arkansas, but he's never seen a pitching staff quite like the one the Razorbacks have assembled this season.
Homegrown talent has been the cornerstone of Arkansas' pitching, with all three weekend starters hailing from Arkansas for the first time DeBriyn can recall in his 45 seasons in Fayetteville. Trey Killian (Mountain Home), Jalen Beeks (Prairie Grove) and Chris Oliver (Shiloh Christian) have combined to start all 15 of the Razorbacks' conference games this year.
While Arkansas' 7-8 league record might not indicate it, the pitching has once again been the team's strong suit. The Razorbacks enter their weekend series against Vanderbilt with the nation's 12th-lowest earned run average of 2.43.
"I don't think there's any question about it that baseball is much better in our state," said DeBriyn, the 33-year coach of the Razorbacks who still serves as a regional scout for the Colorado Rockies. "That's a tribute to baseball and to the U of A, Coach (Dave) Van Horn and his staff and program. Baseball is looked upon kind of as a major sport now with legion ball and traveling teams. The whole bit makes it more of a focus for kids. That's been good and I think we're seeing the results now."
In-state pitchers have played a key role as Arkansas has become one of the top pitching programs in the era of deadened bats in college baseball. DJ Baxendale, Barrett Astin and Brandon Moore were among those who helped the Razorbacks to the College World Series in 2012. Astin, Moore and this year's trio of starters helped the team to the NCAA's lowest team ERA in nearly four decades last season.
"Maybe there's a little pride," Killian said. "I can't say much for the guys who aren't from Arkansas, but I take pride in it and I'm sure Beeks and Oliver do as well. I feel like the fans really feed off the hometown kid, the home state kid and are really pulling for those guys."
DeBriyn credits much of Arkansas' success on the mound to pitching coach Dave Jorn, who coached for DeBriyn during a run of five College World Series in 11 seasons. After a stint with the Yankees' minor league system, Jorn was rehired by Van Horn in 2003 and the Razorbacks have advanced to Omaha three more times since.
"When he was with us we were going to Omaha every other year and when he left us in the late '80s we never went back," DeBriyn said. "When Coach Van Horn got here one of the first things he did was hire Jorn back.
"Coach Van Horn is a very good baseball guy and he was a graduate assistant with us in the late '80s. We had a good staff. He knew what Dave Jorn brought to the table. Dave Van Horn is a bottom line guy and he knew what Coach Jorn could do, and the proof has been in the pudding."
Van Horn has routinely referred to Jorn as one of the best pitching coaches in the country. DeBriyn said you can see the pitching coach's fingerprints on this year's team with Killian, Beeks and Oliver all markedly better than a year ago.
"Oliver's command is so much better, just really better as far as his breaking ball and fastball, even better than he was in the fall, in my opinion," DeBriyn said. "I've noticed, also, more of the national guys, scouting directors, cross checkers, are coming in to see Arkansas more and more."
If the weekend is anything like the last two, scouts could be seeing a lot of Killian, Beeks and Oliver. Arkansas' starters have combined to throw 47 2/3 of the team's 52 2/3 innings on the mound the last two weekends in series against South Carolina and LSU.
"I've seen almost every game and I've been texting reports on their numbers - velocity, breaking ball, ball-strike ratio, etcetera," DeBriyn said. "The scouts have been seeing them and now they're in here this weekend to see all three."