In the end, UA's staff not enough

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Arkansas starter Trey Killian delivers a pitch against Auburn during first the inning Friday, April 25, 2014, at Baum Stadium.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas starter Trey Killian delivers a pitch against Auburn during first the inning Friday, April 25, 2014, at Baum Stadium.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The Arkansas pitching staff had huge shoes to fill after last season's NCAA-best 1.89 team earned-run average.

Undaunted by the shadow of their predecessors, the Razorbacks pitchers turned in a strong season, propelling Arkansas to a 16-14 SEC record and another regional final with a 2.63 ERA, the second-best in school history.

The Razorbacks' postseason road ended, however, against an even better collection of pitchers. No. 4 Virginia, which began the season ranked No. 1 in some polls, beat the Hogs 3-0 and 9-2 in the Charlottesville Regional, leaning on left-handers Nathan Kirby and Brandon Waddell to oust Arkansas and drop their team ERA to 2.29, currently fifth in the nation.

"We had a staff like that the last couple of years," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said late Sunday after the 9-2 elimination loss. "In 2012, we went to the World Series. And last year, if we could have hit a little bit, we could have gone to the World Series.

"What you have is a staff that's competing to get on the mound against each other and that's the best competition. That's why your team ERA is the way it is."

Arkansas' staff was almost on par with that.

Jalen Beeks, Trey Killian and Chris Oliver made 43 of the team's 65 starts, and they wound up ranking first, second and third, respectively, in ERA among pitchers with 39 or more innings on the staff.

Lefty reliever Michael Gunn had a season like no other in Arkansas history, setting school records for lowest ERA (0.74), fewest runs allowed (4) and fewest earned runs allowed (3) for pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched.

Arkansas' starting pitching, combined with an uptick in run scoring, fueled the Razorbacks' stretch drive with nine victories in their final 12 games and netted a No. 2 regional seed. Yet ultimately, it was Arkansas' starting pitching that faltered in their regional performance.

Oliver was wild while leading off the regional with a 3-2 victory over Liberty. Killian wasn't on his game, but still battling, before having to come out with a developing blister on his pitching hand in the Razorbacks' 3-0 loss to Virginia on Saturday.

Beeks returned from a month-long layoff with an outstanding showing in a 10-0 victory over Bucknell.

None of those three, working on longer than average rest compared to the team's string of gems during the whirlwind stretch drive, lasted more than five innings.

Add Zach Jackson's start of 2 2/3 innings, which ended during a mistake-filled six-run third inning Sunday against the Cavaliers, and the Razorbacks starters pitched 16 innings with a 4.50 ERA. Their bullpen in the regional went 19 innings and allowed 2 earned runs for an ERA of 0.95.

Van Horn, who made the call to move Oliver to the regional opener and throw Killian against Virginia, dissected the starts by those two and Jackson late Sunday.

"Oliver was just wild," Van Horn said. "It's not the first time that's happened to him. It happened against LSU. We were just fortunate enough to score 10 runs and beat them in the Sunday game.

"Trey can usually throw his fastball anywhere he wants. I think he just didn't have the command of it like normal. ... I think there were some borderline pitches he didn't get that was frustrating to him.

"Our thinking was if we could get through the first game with Oliver going against a team that swings. Liberty swings. We felt like with Killian, we face Virginia with Killian and we have a chance to get them because he throws nothing but strikes, and they take a lot of pitches and they work the counts.

"I think it was the right move, it just didn't happen. They didn't have their best stuff. That's just the way it goes."

Jackson, Van Horn said, simply had one bad inning that was compounded by walks, a hit batter and two fielding mistakes.

"He seemed a little bit flustered to me tonight," he said. "He just didn't seem like himself. He was really wild up."

Sports on 06/03/2014