Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double 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 Heisman Trophy and Biletnikoff Award.
Hogs see more pitching options in '17
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight throws during a scrimmage Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Blaine Knight was standing on the mound when a possum ran onto the field at LSU’s Alex Box Stadium last May.
At the time, the Razorbacks were ahead 9-4 in the seventh inning — on the verge of one of their biggest wins in a frustrating season.
Knight did his job well that night, but the defenders behind him couldn’t say the same. Two innings after the possum was bagged, a flurry of errors allowed LSU to bag enough runs to tie the game, one it had trailed 9-1. The Tigers went on to win in extra innings and swept the Razorbacks the next day.
Those losses were three of 13 straight to end the season for Arkansas.
Although not the only contributor, the main cause was a lack of pitching depth that had been evident all season but became almost impossible to overcome at the end of 14 long weeks. An error-prone defense only made things worse.
“It would become mental a lot,” Knight said. “Against LSU, that was tough, I’m not going to lie, having errors behind me and giving up five unearned runs. I punched out eight and was doing everything I can, but guys weren’t backing me up on defense. We should have won that game, no doubt.
“It’s hard to keep a positive attitude when that happens.”
That isn’t to say the Razorbacks didn’t compete in the waning days of the 2016 season. Wes Johnson observed that from the dugout as Arkansas was swept at Mississippi State in the final series of the season.
“It blew me away at how competitive they were for everything they had been through,” said Johnson, then the pitching coach for the SEC champion Bulldogs. “There are other teams that get to that point and they’ve just checked out. They fought until the last out.
“You could see there was a fighter mentality there. They played until the last stinkin’ out. That said a lot to me.”
There is belief the Razorbacks’ pitching staff will be able to count 2016 as an aberration. Arkansas lost some leaders from that staff like Zach Jackson and James Teague, but returns several sophomores like Knight who gained experience in a trying freshman season.
And there is a lot of new blood.
Longtime Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn retired from college baseball following last season. The Razorbacks hired Johnson, a rising star in the profession who spent last season helping orchestrate an SEC worst-to-first turnaround at Mississippi State.
Johnson’s emphasis on lower-body workouts to increase velocity was evident in the fall when at least seven pitchers hit 95 mph on the radar gun. But more important than power, the Razorbacks’ young pitching staff had to grow up last season and learned how to handle failure.
“I learned that once you release that ball there isn’t much you can do unless it’s hit right back at you, you know?” Knight said. “If you execute your part and they execute theirs and get a hit, good for them. Go back out there and get a double-play ball.
“As I’ve started to learn and think like that, my level of pitching has gone up a ton.”
Knight is one of the leaders of Arkansas’ staff this season and is expected to be in the starting rotation for the Razorbacks’ season-opening series against Miami (Ohio), possibly as the Friday starter next week. His velocity jumped after he gained 15 pounds in Johnson’s rigorous offseason workouts. Knight, whose fastbal has touched 97 mph, also has increased velocity on his secondary pitches and developed a cutter.
But all of the physical attributes pale in comparison to what Knight sees as his biggest offseason gain.
“My maturity level has definitely gotten better,” Knight said. “Being mature on the mound is not just about being mature body-wise, but mentally — being mentally tough — takes you a long way in pitching.”
“Blaine is starting to come out of his shell,” Johnson said. “That could be big for our team.”
The only other surefire starter alongside Knight appears to be classmate Isaiah Campbell, a thick-bodied right-hander with a fastball in the upper 90s. Campbell was used as a midweek starter and relief pitcher last season, and was a midseason all-star in the California Collegiate League last summer.
“He and Blaine are throwing the baseball really well right now,” Johnson said. “We’ve made a few little tweaks to both of those guys and their stuff in the strike zone has been really good. They’re a year older. They know they can get people out in this league.”
Behind Knight and Campbell, it’s a toss-up as to who will pitch where. Junior-college transfer Trevor Stephan appears to be the front-runner for the third weekend starter position to start the season, but opening-weekend rotations rarely stay the same for an entire season.
Senior Dominic Taccolini has years of starting SEC experience, but there is belief he could be used in a bullpen role. The same goes for sophomore Barrett Loseke, who started multiple SEC games last year but may be used in more of a closer role this season.
“I want someone (at closer) who we feel good about,” Johnson said. “I want a closer that when you see him running to the pen, everyone in the crowd says, ‘OK, that’s our dude. That guy is coming in and he’s going to shut it down.’”
Another potential starter is fifth-year senior Josh Alberius, who could start on Tuesday and relieve one or more times on the weekend. Arkansas also has a number of unproven left-handers who pitched well in the fall, including freshmen Evan Lee and Matt Cronin.
“I’m really excited about a couple of these left-handers,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some options now that can come in and do some different things.”
There is intense competition to get on the mound, and that feels different from last year, Knight said.
“These freshmen and the new guys we’ve brought in are good. You can’t get around that; they’re good,” Knight said. “They’ve pushed me, they’ve pushed Isaiah, pushed Dom — they’ve pushed all of us as much as they have pushed each other. I feel like I’ve got freshmen nipping at my heels.
“Coach Johnson has brought a lot to us. He’s a high-intensity guy and so when you hang around a high-intensity coach, everyone else’s level is going to come up, too. That’s helped a lot.”
This story originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated
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