State of the Hogs: Closer 'just showed up'

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Matt Cronin flashes the downward horns sign after recording the final out during a game against Texas on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas pitcher Matt Cronin flashes the downward horns sign after recording the final out during a game against Texas on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— There are lots of great recruiting stories in college baseball.

I recall all the time Todd Butler spent chasing Andrew Benintendi and Zack Cox, or how Tony Vitello found and signed Heston Kjerstad. They were wonderful stories of persistence by a top flight recruiter.

Then, there's the recruiting story of Matt Cronin, the Razorbacks' flame throwing closer who is likely to be picked high in the MLB Draft next year. Basically, he just showed up at Arkansas from Navarre, Fla.

“That's the way I'd describe it,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He came here for a camp the summer before his junior year in high school. I really didn't know how he got here.”

Cronin agreed.

“Yes, I guess you could say I just showed up," he said.

In fact, Van Horn introduced himself on the field at what they call the Arkansas Futures Camp, then asked, “Now, how did you get here and where are you from?”

The story, Cronin recalls now, is that his mother, Robyn, has some Arkansas roots. After growing up in Kennett, Mo., she moved to Little Rock where she met her husband, a career Air Force man stationed at Jacksonville.

“When I was growing up in Florida, she always talked about me going to school somewhere in the state of Arkansas,” Cronin said. “Everyone in her family went to Harding, so she either wanted me to go there, or to Arkansas.”

There wasn't much discussion about where after Cronin blew everyone away – hitters and coaches – at the Arkansas camp.

“They told me I could pitch first in the scrimmage since I was from the (farthest away),” Cronin said. “I remember that I struck out all 10 batters.”

Van Horn remembers that, too.

"It was everyone he faced," Van Horn said. "The way we did it, you get five batters then we switched pitchers. He got all five over two rotations.”

That prompted more intensive questions.

“Matt told me he'd been at Harding the day before at their camp,” Van Horn said. “He'd pitched back-to-back days.”

That made his performance more impressive.

“I asked him how he did there and he said the coaches told him, 'If you are going to Arkansas tomorrow and you throw like this, you are too good for here,' and I guess he pitched well there, too,” Van Horn said. “I think he was throwing 86 and that's pretty good for that age. We offered pretty quickly.”

Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan told Van Horn last month, “We knew about Cronin. I just wondered how you did?”

Cronin doesn't remember any interest from the Gators.

“After I came here for the camp, I wasn't going anywhere else,” he said. “I sure wasn't going to Florida. The school that came after me the most was Florida State. They pushed hard. But I wasn't going there, either. Every person from my high school goes there and I wanted to do something different.”

Senior Carson Shaddy recalls “different” was the right description for Cronin when he arrived on campus.

“First, he came here with a cast on his wrist,” Shaddy said. “I remember that and his hair. It was long and shaggy. I thought, 'He's a little different, one of those Florida kids.' And, that is about right. I thought, 'Who is this guy?' Then, I saw his fastball. Wow.”

Cronin is different in that he's a lefty with a 96 mph fastball, and a curve that might be about ready to be unleashed over the second half of the SEC campaign. Cronin has seven saves and has been lights out of late, including Tuesday against Grambling State when he retired all three batters he faced.

“What he does with the fast ball is pretty special,” Shaddy said. “It rises the last 2 feet. You think you are on top of it and you miss it by about a foot. You think you can get it, but you can't.

“I can tell you right now batters don't really want to face him. He's that tough.”

And, he's got swagger, something that might be translating to the rest of the team.

“When he steps into the game, you can tell he's locked in,” Shaddy said. “He comes in to shut them down.”

He's shown some fire with fist pumps, shouts and the ultimate sign of swagger: the downward hook 'em sign after he closed out a win over Texas earlier this year. He looked into the Texas dugout before giving them the reverse of their signature hand signal.

“I'd thought about doing it before I got in the game,” he said. “No one else told me to do that. It was all me. It just felt right.”

Shaddy didn't find out about it until this week.

“He did that? That's awesome,” Shaddy said.

Van Horn wasn't as pleased. He knows another Arkansas team might have to pay the price for Cronin's taunts.

“I can appreciate Matt's competitive nature,” Van Horn said. “I wish he hadn't done that.

“Texas has a lot of rivals and a lot of teams probably do that, so they've seen it before and all it does is fuel their fire. They think, 'I'll get you next time.' So it's better off left alone.”

Cronin doesn't care. He knows the Hogs are going to Austin next year.

“Great,” he said.

That's about what Cronin is already, but he's not done expanding his arsenal of pitches. He's mainly gone with a fastball that spins and rises as it reaches the zone. But he's got a breaking ball that's got a late break.

“He can spin it pretty good,” Van Horn said. “He's got it ready and you may see it soon.”

The scary part is that top brass from several MLB teams were in Fayetteville for the Auburn series, watching the Friday matchup between starters Blaine Knight (Arkansas) and Casey Mize (Auburn). Both are likely to be first rounders this year.

“But the guy I really liked was Cronin,” said one MLB executive. “He's left-handed and throws 96 to 97. He may get to the big leagues faster than Knight or Mize. There are a lot of good right-handers, but not too many who throw a fastball like that from the left side.”

Van Horn said the scouts like Cronin a lot and "he'll get better, too."

It's hard to imagine doing much better. The opposition is batting just .132 against him. He's 2-0 overall and has four saves in SEC play. In SEC games, the opposition hits .160 against Cronin.

Cronin flashed that fastball last year, too, but it wasn't always for a strike.

“I wanted to be the closer last year, but my fastball command wasn't good enough,” he said. “That's what I've gotten better, ability to throw it for a strike.”

Van Horn said it's just natural maturation.

“Most get better for their second year,” he said. “He's gotten a lot bigger and stronger.”

And, he's gotten tougher.

“You feel pretty good when you see him coming in at the end of the game,” Shaddy said. “He's got that mentality to want to be in that situation. With some guys, you might want to give them a word or two when they come in. I don't. I stay away from that guy. You leave him alone because he's ready.”

That's pretty good for a guy who just showed up.

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