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.
Big Arms, Small Towns
Hogs prove quality pitching can come from anywhere
Clockwise: Arkansans Trey Killian (Norfork), Jalen Beeks (Prairie Grove), Michael Gunn (Wilson) and Chris Oliver (Farmington) have led the Razorbacks' pitching staff this season.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas towns called home by Trey Killian, Chris Oliver, Jalen Beeks and Michael Gunn have a combined population that almost could fit into Baum Stadium.
"You don't have to be from a big city to be good," Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn said. "We have guys that have proven that."
Killian, Oliver, Beeks and Gunn, whose combined hometown populations are 12,229 according to the 2012 census, have provided big arms to help the Razorbacks (38-22) make an NCAA regional for the 13th consecutive season.
At Davenport Field Charlottesville, Va.
All times Central
Virginia (44-13) vs. Bucknell (30-19-1), 1 p.m.
Liberty (41-16) vs. Arkansas (38-23), 6 p.m. (ESPNU)
Oliver, 8-4 with a 2.45 ERA in 15 starts, is a junior right-hander from Farmington (population 6,171) who played at Shiloh Christian High School. He'll start Friday night in Arkansas' opener at the regional in Charlottesville, Va., against Liberty.
Killian, 4-8 with a 2.18 earned average in 13 starts, is a sophomore right-hander from Norfork (population 505) who played at Mountain Home High School. He'll start the second regional game Saturday against Virginia or Bucknell.
Beeks, 5-4 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 starts, is a junior left-hander from Prairie Grove (population 4,654) who played at Prairie Grove High School and Crowder Community College in Neosho, Mo., before signing with the Razorbacks last year. He hasn't pitched since May 3 at Ole Miss because of an elbow injury but is hopeful of being able to work out of the bullpen at the regional.
Gunn, 4-2 with a 0.84 ERA and 7 saves, is a junior left-hander from Wilson (population 899) who played at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. He is one of the Razorbacks' top relievers.
"I think the talent in Arkansas baseball has grown a lot lately," Oliver said. "It just shows that you can come from small towns and still play at places like this in the SEC."
Killian, Oliver and Beeks moved into the SEC starting rotation this season after the Razorbacks lost seven pitchers to the major-league amateur draft, including three of the top 90 picks in Ryne Stanek, Colby Suggs and Barrett Astin.
"With the draft last year, it didn't look too hot," Oliver said. "But the young guys came in, they stepped up. I think that all goes back to Coach Jorn and his philosophy and mentality with us."
While newcomers such as Jacob Stone and Zach Jackson have helped the Razorbacks, their team ERA is 2.63 thanks primarily to Killian, Oliver and Beeks making the transition from relievers last season to SEC starters.
Arkansas led the nation last season with a 1.89 ERA, which was the lowest since Connecticut's 1.71 in 1976.
"We haven't discussed anything about last year. That one has already passed," Jorn said. "As far as what to expect, I didn't know. I knew we had some kids that were competitive and some hard workers that had some talent. So they just needed some innings to try to figure out whether or not they were going to be good enough to be able to compete."
If Arkansas wins the Charlottesville regional, it could be matched against South Carolina in a super regional. The prospect of that occurring isn't likely to thrill the Gamecocks, who came into Fayetteville in early April with a No. 1 ranking and lost 2 of 3 games. After South Carolina won the opener 2-1, the Razorbacks won 4-1 and 7-0.
"When you go against Killian, Beeks and Oliver, you're going against three Friday night guys, three elite guys," South Carolina Coach Chad Holbrook said. "They're as good as anybody in this league or in the country."
Holbrook said each of Arkansas' top starters have different qualities.
"Killian can run it up there with some command with a fastball in the mid-90s and a good breaking ball," he said. "Beeks, I love his makeup. He's got a little bit of a funky delivery that makes it very difficult for the hitters to pick up the ball, and he's got the heart of a lion with an incredible, competitive spirit. Then Oliver is just blessed with an incredible arm. Against us he had a great, great breaking ball and had command the whole game."
Arkansas' small-town starters helped the Razorbacks hold Vanderbilt to five runs in a three-game series at Fayetteville.
"It doesn't matter where you come from. It just matters how big your heart is and how willing you are to take it to another level," Commodores Coach Tim Corbin said. "It's a big country with a lot of kids, and they come from all over."
Killian and Oliver combined to pitch 12 1/3 scoreless innings at the SEC Tournament in Arkansas' victories over Texas A&M and Ole Miss. Gunn pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings in two SEC Tournament appearances.
"They've always pitched," Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco said. "It's not like it's just this year. This team doesn't seem to be different than any other year."
Recent in-state pitchers for the Razorbacks include Barrett Astin (Forrest City), Drew Smyly (Little Rock Central), DJ Baxendale (Sylvan Hills), Trent Daniel (Bryant) and Brandon Moore (Van Buren).
"There's been some good pitchers that have come out of this state," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "There might not be as many as a lot of other states because of the population, but I think that there's a lot of talent in this state."
Killian said it's an awesome feeling to have so many in-state players on Arkansas' roster, especially the pitchers.
"We take a lot of pride in being from Arkansas," Killian said. "I don't think Arkansas gets credit for being a baseball state, but we've shown we have some talent here."
Jorn said he enjoys coaching players from anywhere, but that those from small Arkansas towns often have extra incentive.
"We've been fortunate to be able to have some good in-state arms," Jorn said. "It's important to get these in-state kids, too, because these are the guys that grow up with the Razorbacks so playing for us means a lot to them.
"They haven't had anything given to them. They've had to fight and work for a lot of stuff, and their character and their makeup is pretty good. You can challenge them, you can get after them. They'll listen and try to do what you ask them to do."
If Beeks is able to pitch this weekend, even in a limited role, it could be crucial for the Razorbacks.
"Especially if he's pitching the way he can," Van Horn said. "That would be a major plus for us, whether we used him as a seventh-, eighth-, ninth-inning type guy or close a game. Or get to a situation where he could start, it would be tremendous for our staff.
"Just having another arm in there with experience would be big."
Killian and Oliver have pitched deep into games all season, which should give Arkansas a chance to win its regional. Since Beeks' injury, the Razorbacks have won all seven games Killian or Oliver have started, with the pair combining to allow only six runs in 46 2/3 innings.
"They've seen everybody," Van Horn said. "They've pitched against the types of teams we're going to face."
Sports on 05/29/2014