State of the Hogs: Taccolini wants to 'show' his stuff in finish

By: Clay Henry
Published: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Arkansas senior Dominic Taccolini throws a pitch during a game against Vanderbilt on Sunday May 14, 2017 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks beat Vanderbilt 7-1.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas senior Dominic Taccolini throws a pitch during a game against Vanderbilt on Sunday May 14, 2017 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks beat Vanderbilt 7-1.

— There were two assumptions that I held going into a Tuesday interview session with the Arkansas baseball team ahead of its final series of the regular season beginning Thursday at Texas A&M.

Both concerned Dominic Taccolini and were on different ends of the spectrum. The first was that Taccolini would be firmly entrenched as the Arkansas starter when the Razorbacks finish their series with the Aggies on Saturday. The second was that Taccolini, a senior, had graduated. He has not.

OK, I'm wrong all the time. But this time I can understand what is going on. I'm not that far off.

Taccolini's value is still the same in the eyes of Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn after a brilliant start on Sunday to earn the victory (because of pitch count) in a 7-1 decision over Vanderbilt to clinch a series victory.

Taccolini had missed three weekends of action with a sore muscle in his forearm. He didn't even make the trip to Tennessee two weekends ago while trying to rehab from the arm injury and a sore back. He's spent more time in the hydration pool in the basketball practice facility than on the Baum Stadium bullpen mound.

So when Taccolini gave the Hogs great pitching on Sunday against red-hot Vandy, it was a big deal. No one questions Taccolini's ability to pitch well, but it's been almost one month since that had happened. And, there was brilliance with this outing, just three hits allowed, one earned run and only one walk out of his 18 batters faced.

The official scorekeeper chalked it a victory to run Taccolini's record to 4-0 despite not finishing the fifth inning. He needed one more out, but Van Horn had mentioned in pre-game that Taccolini's limit was around 70 pitches. The senior from Sugar Land, Texas, threw 72.

It was a huge performance for an Arkansas team looking for one more quality starter to team with Blaine Knight and Trevor Stephan.

Taccolini has what baseball minds call "great stuff." And, he had his stuff Sunday. He mixed his moving fastball with other quality breaking balls, all for strikes early in the count. It's the kind of variety that makes for a great starter with ability to work through a batting order multiple times.

Taccolini could be the starter in the three-game series this weekend, but Van Horn suggested that he wouldn't wait until the finale if there is a chance to win a game earlier and the situation screams for Taccolini.

“We'll do what we have to do to win games at the start of the series,” Van Horn said Tuesday. “We'll use Dom if we need him on Thursday or Friday. And, if he hasn't pitched in those first two games, we'd start him on Saturday.”

OK, that's clear enough. The Hogs aren't exactly stocked with quality arms in the bullpen. Jake Reindl, Kevin Kopps and Cannon Chadwick might be the top end of the bullpen. Taccolini is right there with them.

The goal is to try to cobble enough pitching together to win two games in a road series. If you can win the first two, Van Horn indicated he'd probably use all of his best arms to do it. Taccolini knows to be ready.

“It doesn't matter when,” he said. “I'm just glad I'm able to pitch again. I really thought I'd help this team more than I have this season. I thought I'd be a bigger factor. Hopefully, I can for this last stretch.”

The answer to the graduation question took me off guard, but it's easily understood. It's almost impossible for college pitchers to finish all degree requirements in some of the tougher degree programs. They seldom are around campus for summer school. And, the travel of the spring knocks them out of certain Friday labs.

Taccolini is a brilliant student. He's nearly made all A's throughout his four years at Arkansas. But he's in one of those tough fields, a major in geology. There are some summer labs that are all but impossible for a baseball player.

“I'm six hours short, and it's one class, a summer field trip,” Taccolini said. “It's one of those multiple week deals. I should have done it last year with my classmates. It would have been fun. But it starts when the season is still going on, like next week. I couldn't do it last year and I couldn't do it this year.”

And, it's one of those sweet deals that geology students most look forward to out of all of their requirements.

“You go to Montana and Wyoming for a few weeks,” he said. “You study rock formations, stratification.There are lots of hikes into beautiful country. It would have been a blast.”

Taccolini isn't going to make that trip. Instead, he's probably headed to Arizona and California in the fall.

“Yeah, there's another one, but it might not be quite the same as the Montana trip,” he said. “It's through a school in Arizona. It will fill that last requirement, though.”

For now, Taccolini will try to fill that last need for the Arkansas baseball team, that key last pitcher to carry them through for a solid SEC finish and a possible deep run in postseason play.

“We really need him,” Van Horn said. “I know it's been tough on him the last few weeks. He knew how much we needed him and he just couldn't go. He was frustrated. It was tough on him. He knew he was the guy who could get us over the hump and he may be able to do it.”

There are vibes that Taccolini could be the last piece to the puzzle for an Arkansas staff that lost Isaiah Campbell, Keaton McKinney and Cody Scroggins to injuries. Campbell and McKinney were slated to be starters. There were hints that Taccolini was going to be the main man in the bullpen, perhaps the closer.

Taccolini said it “was important” to pitch well Sunday against Vanderbilt. He was not worried about how he'd feel after throwing a great bullpen on Wednesday that was the culmination of three weeks of rehab that was mostly built around long toss and work in the pool.

“I wanted to show what I could do,” he said. “Really, I wanted to show what my college career should have been. I wanted to live up to my potential.

“I've felt like I had more than what I showed this year for sure. I thought it was going to be really good after working on all of the new things.”

That's in reference to new training methods brought to the team by pitching coach Wes Johnson last summer. Taccolini's praise of Johnson isn't just with the physical training that included a new regimen with weighted balls and sleds. It's the mental aspect as well.

“If you are a young pitcher looking for a place, this is it,” Taccolini said. “Coach Johnson is just tremendous. He's helped all of us so much. It's all the things we train with, then what he does to fit his coaching to every individual.

“For example, I'm a person who was pushed by my parents. But I didn't get a lot of praise. So what I got from Coach Johnson to motivate me was praise. Lots of it. It meant so much to me. I wanted to work for him. Everything he's giving me is positive and it feels great. It's exciting.

“But for everyone else, it might be different. Like for Trevor, he's quiet and has his certain ways to work. He stays with himself. It's best to just leave him alone, let him do his thing. He understands exactly what he needs to do and Coach Johnson recognized that.

“It's funny, but Keaton and I were talking about that a couple of nights ago. So Keaton, maybe his parents were different than mine. They maybe gave him a little too much praise. So what Keaton said he probably needed was someone to coach him hard, maybe not so much praise as me. That's exactly what Coach Johnson gave him.”

Van Horn flashed a huge smile when those three examples were mentioned.

“You know what, I could probably talk to you two hours about all of this,” Van Horn said. “What I'll tell you is that when Coach Johnson got here, we went deep into all of the personalities. I hoped we could give him a look into each one of our guys, what maybe motivated them or what they needed.

“It's not one thing for each person. It's something different for every one of them. You want to be able to do what each one is needed.

“You also have to do what's best for the team and treat them all the same in one respect, but coaching is all about learning the personalities and then getting them to perform. I do think Coach Johnson is great at that aspect. He figures out what makes them tick.”

It's all coming together for Taccolini.

“The way I pitched Sunday is the way I should have pitched before,” Taccolini said. “But sometimes it just takes time. I know I'm better right now than I've ever been. I've learned all of the things Coach Johnson has tried to teach me. It is falling into place.”

Taccolini thought things “felt effortless” in the warm-up session Sunday.

“First, everything Coach Johnson told me on Sunday was positive,” he said. “I knew I was going to pitch good. He was pumping fuel into me in every way.

“What I was doing was exactly what he'd coached into me all year. We had talked about separating the upper and lower body and I did it.

“You twist your hips and it brings your upper body forward and you just flick the ball. I felt it all. The hand was the last thing. So all I was focused on was location. Everything else happened exactly the way it's supposed to happen with what Coach Johnson had given me all year.”

Can he repeat it at College Station?

“I don't know why I can't,” Taccolini said. “I feel great. My arm feels great. My back feels great. It doesn't matter if I start or I'm in the bullpen. I've got my confidence back.”

College Station is one of the places that ripped his confidence away. He was firmly in the starting rotation two years ago when the Aggies battered him. The tough part, there were plenty of friends and family there, just 90 minutes from home.

“Their students get on you pretty good,” Taccolini said. “They knew my girlfriend's name – at that time – and just chanted her name.

“The key is to just pitch good. That shuts them up. I know they don't mean anything by it, but you have to handle it. You have to shut them up with the way you pitch. I know that.”

Taccolini said he never considered the Aggies in recruiting. It just wasn't a good fit.

“I guess I didn't ever understand the Aggie culture,” Taccolini said. “I wanted to come here. I always wanted to pitch in the SEC and I just liked it here. I've loved it here. This is a good place for Texas players to come.”

What Taccolini does get is Wes Johnson. He's fired up to show what his new coach has put in his system. Johnson calls him “Big Diesel.” Taccolini wants to power the Hogs on down the highway.

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