Andrew Hutchinson has been a multimedia reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 2014.
Late surge saved down year
Arkansas head coach Dave van Horn signals to a player during an NCAA college baseball regional tournament game against Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Sunday, June 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Arkansas’ season came to disappointing end with a 9-2 loss to Virginia Sunday night in the Charlottesville Regional.
It was not the way coach Dave Van Horn had hoped to end the season, but he said he was proud of his team for making it as far as it did after being on the bubble most of the year.
“I appreciate the effort that they’ve given us the last couple of months,” Van Horn said. “There was a time where we could have gone either way. Guys just kept fighting and we started winning.”
After losing seven of eight games, including its first two in conference, during a stretch in March, Arkansas hovered around .500 in conference play until dropping two-of-three to Auburn and Ole Miss during the back-half of the SEC schedule.
The Razorbacks then rallied to win two of three games against Texas A&M. Arkansas swept Missouri to cap the regular season and propel them into the postseason, which included a 3-2 record at the SEC Tournament and 2-2 record in the regional.
For the fifth time in six seasons and seventh time since Van Horn became the coach in 2003, the Razorbacks (40-25) won at least 40 games.
The storyline was the same as 2013 for most of the season: plenty of pitching, but not enough offense.
The pitching staff posted a team ERA of 2.63, which ranked 15th in the country and third in the SEC. The 2.63 ERA is the second lowest in school history and 2014 is the third straight season the Razorbacks had a team ERA under 3.00.
“Arkansas has a tremendous pitching staff,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “They’re tremendous on the mound.”
For most of the season, Arkansas had three of the best starting pitchers in the conference – Jalen Beeks, Trey Killian and Chris Oliver. The trio of in-state recruits had a 19-17 combined win-loss record, but a 2.28 ERA.
Oliver pitched the entire season, while Killian missed a couple of starts at the beginning of the season with an eligibility issue and Beeks missed three weeks at the end of the season with an elbow injury.
“We feel like we have three number ones when Beeks is healthy,” Van Horn said before the regional. “Our rotation has shifted around all year. I would say Oliver and Killian, to me it's flip a coin. They've been really good for us, especially down the stretch.”
In Charlottesville, however, Arkansas’ starting pitchers struggled.
Oliver (9-4, 2.51 ERA) started the first game against Liberty and lasted only five innings. He struggled with his command, walking six batters and hitting two with pitches, but earned the win.
Killian (4-9, 2.30 ERA) started against Virginia Saturday night and had to be pulled out of the game after 3 1/3 innings because of a blister on his hand. Before getting the blister, though, he gave up three runs, two of which were earned, on seven hits.
Beeks (6-4, 1.98 ERA) made a surprise start against Bucknell Sunday afternoon and pitched well. The left-hander gave up three hits and did not allow a run, while tying a career-high with nine strikeouts in his first outing in nearly a month.
Coming into the regional, Van Horn said he thought Beeks might pitch a couple innings out of the bullpen and pitching coach Dave Jorn said he would have a pitch count around 50. Beeks far exceeded those expectations, throwing 77 pitches in five innings.
“He basically wouldn’t let us take him out after the fourth,” Van Horn said. “I’m glad he got through that. He did a tremendous job.”
Freshman Zach Jackson started the fourth and final game of the regional against Virginia. He struggled through 2 2/3 innings before being pulled. The right-hander gave up six runs, four of which were earned, on three hits, two walks and a hit by pitch.
Despite the tough performance, O’Connor, Virginia’s coach, said he expects Jackson to be a first-round draft pick in two years.
Arkansas’ bullpen, which was solid all season, was stellar in Charlottesville. Because of the short outings by the starters, the bullpen had to pitch 19 innings.
After 18 scoreless innings, James Teague surrendered the bullpen’s first runs. Virginia scored three runs off of Teague and Jacob Stone in the ninth inning of the final game, but only two were earned, meaning the bullpen had a 1.00 ERA at the regional.
Michael Gunn, who earned seven saves before being moved into a set-up role near the end of the season, gave Arkansas 4 1/3 scoreless innings of work in relief, allowing only two hits and one walk while striking out four batters.
Dominic Taccolini came into the regional with the second-worst ERA on the team (5.81), but pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed only two hits in relief of Killian Saturday night.
At the plate, Arkansas improved its batting average to .263, three points higher than in 2013. The last two seasons’ batting averages have been the two lowest by the Razorbacks since 1978.
The poor hitting followed Arkansas to Charlottesville. After squeaking out a win with three runs on seven hits against Liberty Friday night, the Razorbacks were shutout by Virginia and collected only two hits.
Arkansas followed the two-hitter by pounding out 10 runs on 16 hits against Bucknell’s third starting pitcher and capped the tournament with a two-run, eight-hit game against Virginia.
The Razorbacks’ most consistent hitter was Brian Anderson and he produced at the regional. He went 8-for-13 with triple and home run, earning All-Tournament honors. The performance brought his season batting average up to .328. He was also the only player to start every game.
The only other two players that hit over .300 were freshmen Alex Gosser (.320) and Clark Eagan (.301).
Gosser was redshirted the first 50 games of the season before injuries to Jake Wise and Blake Baxendale forced him into the lineup. In limited action, he went 8-for-25 with three RBI. Eagan also came along late in the season, moving into the designated hitter and leadoff spot when Baxendale suffered a season-ending hamstring injury last month. He hit a pair of home runs and had 12 RBI.
Another freshman that started most of the season was Andrew Benintendi. The highly-touted prospect spent time in right field and center field, while batting .276 at the plate. He also the team-leader in steals (17) and runs scored (45).
“We had a lot of talented young players on this team,” Anderson said. “On offense, you have guys like Clark Eagan and Benintendi that are table-setters and are guys that can hurt you with the bat.”
The most power in the lineup came from Eric Fisher, who belted a team-high nine home runs. At one point during the season, the first baseman hit a home run in four consecutive SEC games.
Baxendale missed significant time with an injury for the second year in a row. While he was in the order, though, he provided a lot of pop, including a grand slam against LSU. He also batted .290 and had 21 RBI.
One of the biggest disappointments of the season offensively was Wise. Arkansas’ lone senior finished the year with a .149 batting average, but he led the SEC by throwing out 20 base runners despite missing time with a concussion and fractured throwing hand.
Along with Wise, the Razorbacks could potentially lose 15 underclassmen that are eligible for the MLB Draft, which starts Thursday. Anderson, Beeks and Oliver are likely to be high-round draft picks, while several others will have decisions to make about coming back to school.
“I look forward to following some of these guys in their careers down the road,” Van Horn said.