State of the Hogs: Kacey Murphy ready for any role

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, February 9, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Kacey Murphy throws during an SEC Tournament game against Florida on Saturday, May 27, 2016, in Hoover, Ala.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas pitcher Kacey Murphy throws during an SEC Tournament game against Florida on Saturday, May 27, 2016, in Hoover, Ala.

— Kacey Murphy looks a lot like last year. He's still the same, easy going lefty from Rogers Heritage.

But looks can deceive. The guy with the plain nickname, isn't so plain anymore. He's got some confidence, some swagger.

Likely to be a weekend starter when conference play rolls around, Murphy might be the guy to get the ball when Arkansas heads to San Diego for a big game Feb. 21 against Arizona.

It won't be like he hasn't gotten the ball in big situations in the past. Yes, he was mostly a midweek starter for the Razorbacks last season, but he was the starter in the SEC Tournament when the Hogs thumped eventual national champion Florida, 16-0, in an elimination game. He was the tough-luck loser – his only one of the season – in the NCAA Regional title game against Missouri State.

So don't be fooled if coach Dave Van Horn doesn't have Murphy in the starting rotation next weekend when the season begins with a three-game series against Bucknell. Murphy may be just “Murph” to pitching coach Wes Johnson, but there is nothing plain or vanilla about his stuff.

It is interesting that most on this UA pitching staff have better nicknames than Murphy. There's Jake “The Hammer” Reindl, Jackson “Big Nasty” Rutledge and Isaiah “The Professor” Campbell.

“I don't think he could think of anything for me, so I'm just classic Murph,” Murphy said. “Giving us nicknames last year was a big deal. We kinda took on our own identity and I understand why Coach Johnson did it.”

Murphy, who was a quiet 5-1 last season, understands everything Johnson gives the UA pitchers.

“It's been pretty amazing what he's been able to give us,” Murphy said. “Our confidence is off the charts. I think you see it in just the way we walk around.

“We know that all of us were good enough or we wouldn't be here in the first place, but it can go one of two ways when you come to college. You can gain confidence, or you can lose confidence. I think most of our guys have gained confidence and have gotten better.

“It can be that you've developed in the system, gotten bigger and stronger. And, it can be that Coach Johnson has given you a new pitch. A lot of guys have added another pitch, sometimes two. He just gives you something that makes you better. I think that's our entire pitching staff right now.”

There's little doubt the runaway victory over Florida has boosted Murphy's confidence. The Hogs run-ruled the Gators. Murphy pitched all seven innings and was never in trouble. He struck out eight and walked two.

“I went back and watched it later to pick up on some things that I'd been working on,” he said. “We try to use tunnel vision while we pitch. I guess it wasn't until later that I realized how fun it was that day.”

What Murphy did that day was superb. He doesn't have a heater like some of the UA starters. He's mainly 88-90 mph, but his running fastball dives in to right handers and is difficult to handle. He works both sides of the plate, with movement. His control is pinpoint.

The only issue coming into the season was a sore back that forced him to sit out some of fall practice. He's had no issues in January.

“I'm a lot better,” he said. “I've done a lot of rehab. The coaches just thought it good to shut me down before the (fall scrimmages). It worked.”

Plus, it gave a talented group of freshman pitchers more time in scrimmages.

“We've got depth and for those guys to pitch in the fall series was a confidence boost for them and the team,” Murphy said. “These are guys who are going to step into big games this season. They can do damage. Yes, we have reliable veterans, but these young ones are extremely talented.”

Murphy would love to be an SEC starter, but knows that the midweek games are just as challenging this season. Along with Arizona, there are games against Dayton and Texas in the midweek early in the season, and Missouri State and Texas Tech in April.

“I'm ready for whatever role is needed,” he said. “Sure, everyone wants to throw on the weekend in SEC games. But this is a challenging schedule from start to finish. We need to win these midweek games, too.

“Don't complain. Do your job. Your job is to pitch for the Razorbacks. There isn't anything better.”

Murphy is up for pitching more than once a week.

“I did that last year,” he said. “I had to come back on short rest and I can do that. It forces a little change in your routine, but I can do it. Maybe we have more depth this year and it won't be as necessary.”

That sounds like captain talk. Murphy said that's not his role, but he understands how to lead.

“We've really got great leaders,” he said. “Everyone does it different. Grant Koch, our catcher, is a captain. He may not say a lot. But he is a leader. Among our pitchers, Isaiah Campbell and Blaine Knight lead. Carson Shaddy and Luke Bonfield lead among the position players.

“What I see is a lot of hard workers. Jax Biggers, our shortstop, is a captain. He doesn't have to say much. You see an incredible work ethic. I am not sure he ever leaves our facility. He's here when I get here and here when I leave. He'll stay all night and set up a machine to shoot ground balls at him.”

There are lots of hard workers among the pitchers, but Murphy said the one who has turned heads over the last 12 months is redshirt junior Keaton McKinney. Battling back from Tommy John surgery just a little more than a year ago, McKinney is likely to get a start on opening weekend.

“I'm excited for Keaton,” Murphy said. “He's looked really good. I was working the other day when he got his first time back against live pitching and I stopped to watch. He looked really good. He's got a new curve and some more velocity on his fast ball. He had command with all of it.

“I can't say enough about Keaton. He's done everything right for a long time and is completely ready. We are all pulling for him hard because he deserves something good to happen with the way he's worked.”

McKinney will fall in behind Knight and Campbell in the opening rotation against Bucknell. He's the big man in that rotation after rail thin Knight (6-3, 170 pounds) and thinning Campbell (6-4, 215 pounds).

Murphy smiled about the way all three of those have changed their bodies. McKinney has beefed up to nearly 235 pounds on a long 6-5 frame. Knight has added a few pounds, but is stronger. Campbell has lost about 20 pounds.

“Me, I'm still about the same, maybe some bigger in my legs,” Murphy said. “I hear stories from Knight about all the things he eats to try to gain weight. I can't touch any of that stuff. He says he could eat a whole package of Oreo cookies and lose weight. I can't even look at cookies, much less eat them.”

It's a good looking Arkansas squad, balanced in all areas. Van Horn told the Swatter's Club on Thursday that extra lifting with new strength coach Blaine Kinsley has paid dividends. The team started fall workouts earlier to get more October and November time in with Kinsley.

There is balance as far as left-right options both at the plate and on the mound. Along with Murphy, the Hogs have lefty pitching talent in Matt Cronin, Evan Lee, Weston Rogers and Hunter Milligan.

There's lefty talent at the plate, too. Eric Cole is a switch-hitter. Along with Biggers and Lee, full-time lefty hitters among returnees are Jared Gates, Hunter Wilson and Jack Kenley. Among the freshmen most likely to play, Heston Kjerstad and Cole Turney are standout lefty hitters.

It's a good roster. There's a lot to talk about.

Mostly, no one is talking about Kacey Murphy. That is likely to change soon.

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