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.
Arkansas rolling with pitching
Arkansas pitcher Chris Oliver delivers a pitch during the fourth inning of a SEC Tournament game against Ole Miss on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn deserves serious consideration for college baseball's assistant coach of the year award.
After losing seven pitchers who logged the majority of innings on the nation's best staff last season, the Razorbacks haven't skipped a beat this year. Arkansas entered this week with the ninth-lowest earned run average (2.37) in the country and it's likely to go down even more after the Razorbacks held Texas A&M and Ole Miss to one run combined at the SEC Tournament.
Arkansas has been especially tough over its last nine games, allowing 21 runs as the Razorbacks have won eight times. Arkansas has two shutouts and allowed one run in two other games during that span without season-long starter Jalen Beeks, who is out with an elbow injury.
Trey Killian and Chris Oliver have stepped up with Beeks out of the rotation. Killian or Oliver have started seven of the last nine games, combining to allow just six earned runs in 46 1/3 innings. Arkansas has won each of the last seven times the right-handers have started.
Neither has been invincible, but their abilities to work out of jams have been admirable. Oliver allowed the leadoff runner on base five times in Wednesday's win over Ole Miss, but picked off two runners and stranded a pair in scoring position within the first three innings.
The only run allowed by Arkansas in the tournament came off Oliver but was unearned when a leadoff runner advanced on a passed ball and wild pitch. The Razorbacks have gone four games without a starter allowing an earned run.
After struggling some against Texas A&M and Missouri, Arkansas' bullpen has also pitched well this week. Michael Gunn and Jacob Stone recorded the final eight outs against Ole Miss on Wednesday while Zach Jackson pitched three scoreless innings in relief against the Aggies the day before.
Ole Miss and Texas A&M rank first and third, respectively, in batting average this season among SEC teams.
Like the starters, the Razorbacks' relievers look to have some momentum after allowing only one run over the final seven innings in a comeback win at Missouri last Saturday.
Without Beeks, Arkansas will have to call on its relievers for the rest of the SEC Tournament. Killian and Oliver won't pitch again until next week's NCAA regionals, so it will be up to the likes of Dominic Taccolini, Alex Phillips, Colin Poche and Landon Simpson to eat up innings for the duration of the team's stay in Hoover, Ala.
The Razorbacks will play at least two more games at the tournament. If they beat LSU on Thursday, they will get Friday off and play an elimination game in Saturday's semifinals. If Arkansas loses to LSU, it will play an elimination game Friday afternoon with the winner advancing to the semifinals.
The odds are the Razorbacks' more inexperienced pitchers won't lead the program to a tournament championship this week. But with pitching propelling the team to its best play of the season, Arkansas could be a tough out in that other tournament next month.