Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Pen making its mark for Hogs
Arkansas reliever Zach Jackson follows through with a pitch during the fourth inning against Nebraska Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas’ revamped bullpen is coming through in the end.
The Razorbacks are 25-1 when leading after seven innings, with the loss coming to South Carolina, 2-1, when the Gamecocks scored two runs in the eighth inning against starter Trey Killian.
Going into Arkansas’ series opener against Auburn tonight at Baum Stadium, the Razorbacks have held opponents to one earned run over the past 222/3 innings of relief. For the season, the Razorbacks are 8 for 8 in save situations.
“It’s really satisfying for us as starters to give the ball off to those guys in the bullpen,” said Jalen Beeks, the Razorbacks’Game 2 starter Saturday for the SEC series. “They’ve been awesome.”
AUBURN AT NO. 24 ARKANSAS
WHEN 6:35 p.m.
WHERE Baum Stadium, Fayetteville
RECORDS Arkansas 27-16, 9-9 SEC. Auburn 23-19, 7-11.
SERIES Auburn leads 41-33
PITCHING MATCHUP Auburn: Dillon Ortman (RHP, 7-2, 2.02 ERA). Arkansas: Trey Killian (RHP, 2-6, 2.63).
SHORT HOPS Arkansas and Auburn pitchers have combined for nine complete games this season - five by the Razorbacks and four by the Tigers. Killian has three complete games and Ortman has two. The other 12 SEC teams have combined for 13 complete games. … Auburn is 16-17 all-time in Fayetteville. … Arkansas has won at least one game in 23 consecutive SEC series and has won five consecutive SEC series at home. … Auburn has lost its past four SEC series. … The Razorbacks are 4-8 against the Tigers since 2010.
Michael Gunn, a junior left-hander, has taken over the closer role from Colby Suggs - a second-round draft pick last season who is now pitching in the Miami Marlins organization - and has a teamhigh 6 saves with a 0.40 ERA in 17 appearances.
“More than anything he’s thrown a lot of strikes,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. “Last year it seemed like he would get behind in the count and have to throw a lot of pitches.
“His stuff is good enough. He’s got a big-time breaking ball. He’s got a good changeup and he spots his fastball well. He throws it in on right-handers well and he can throw it away. To me, he just pitches with confidence.”
Over 221/3 innings, Gunn has held opponents to 10 hits and 9 walks with 22 strikeouts.
“He’s got good poise and makeup, and he’s a good competitor,” Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn said. “He’s been filling up the zone.”
Gunn was elevated to the closer role this season when Killian, Beeks and Chris Oliver moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation.
“I’m comfortable there,” Gunn said of closing games. “The three toughest outs to get are probably the last three, but you just have to treat it like every other inning. You can’t put the pressure on yourself. You have to go out there and pound the zone and compete.”
Gunn doesn’t seem impressed by his ERA being below a half-run.
“I don’t really set a standard for ERA,” he said. “I just want to go out there and compete. If you get ahead and don’t walk guys, that’s what helps you keep your ERA down and helps your team win.”
In the Razorbacks’ 3-1 victory over Vanderbilt last Sunday, Gunn walked the first two batters he faced to load the bases in the eighth inning, but he got a lineout to right field to end the scoring threat and then retired the Commodores in order in the ninth.
“I was throwing it everywhere against those first two batters,” Gunn said. “But I found a way to get back into it and pound the zone the last inning.”
Two newcomers, junior college transfer Jacob Stone and freshman Zach Jackson, have become reliable setup men. Stone, a junior right-hander, is 3-0 with a 0.48 ERA in 182/3 innings. Jackson, a right-hander, is 2-1 with a 2.03ERA in 262/3 innings.
“Stone can be the setup guy or he can go earlier,” Van Horn said. “If we need to get out of a jam in the fifth, we can go to him. If we go in the seventh, we might go to Jackson and he can give us the seventh and eighth and we can give it to Gunn.”
Stone has changed his delivery to more of a side-arm slot this season, which Jorn said has improved his control and velocity.
“Stone almost has a submarine style, and he’s adapted to that really well,” Killian said. “Even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, he’s probably the best competitor we have out of the bullpen. That’s how he gets the job down every time.”
Jackson has recovered from a rough outing in the second SEC series against Alabama, when he allowed four earned runs in a 17-9 loss.
“When Zach got introduced to the SEC, I think he might have gotten a little jittery and kind of tippy-toed around, but we got him back in the right mentality,” Killian said. “He’s attacking hitters now. He’s got great stuff.
“For a freshman to be able to do that job for us is amazing.”
Like Gunn, Jackson and Stone have three pitches with a fastball, slider and changeup.
“Sometimes bullpen guys only have two pitches,” Arkansas catcher Jake Wise said. “I think our guys have three quality pitches that they can throw for strikes in any count. It’s hard the first time you see someone and they throw you three different pitches.
“I think it’s a tribute to Coach Jorn and how good of a coach he is, to be able to teach them and make sure they have command of all their pitches.”
Van Horn said Killian, Beeks and Oliver have been so effective as starters it’s often tough to take them out of a game, but the bullpen’s performance has made it a little easier.
“Our bullpen has been great,” Van Horn said. “That’s why we go to them.”
Sports, Pages 19 on 04/25/2014