State of the Hogs: Cronin amped to try more back-to-back outings

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, February 1, 2019
Arkansas pitcher Matt Cronin fist bumps after recording the final out of an NCAA Tournament game against Dallas Baptist on Sunday, June 3, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas pitcher Matt Cronin fist bumps after recording the final out of an NCAA Tournament game against Dallas Baptist on Sunday, June 3, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— Matt Cronin didn’t have to think long to answer the question: How has he improved in the short time he’s worked with new pitching coach Matt Hobbs?

Cronin is the junior lefty who set the Arkansas school record with 14 saves last season. That beat by one the previous record of 13 set in 2013 by Colby Suggs.

Cronin would have liked to have done two better than Suggs. There was a blown save — and one of his two losses — in the middle game of the College World Series finals when Oregon State rallied from a 3-2 deficit with two outs in the ninth.

“That was the only time all year I pitched back-to-back days,” Cronin said.

Obviously, Cronin wasn’t as sharp in the second game against OSU as in the first when he had only to pitch the ninth inning. He threw 15 pitches in the first game against the Beavers.

“Coach Hobbs and I talked about that,” Cronin said. “He gave me a recovery program that I really like. I think I’ll be able to pitch better on back-to-back days now.”

In fact, Cronin said it’s already proven to be helpful.

“I did back-to-back bullpens to start practice this week,” Cronin said as the Hogs were midway through their opening week of January workouts. “I can see the difference. I felt great.”

There is thought that the Hogs have other closer possibilities this season and that Cronin won’t be needed for as many appearances as last season. He had 25 appearances last season, two fewer than team leaders Jake Reindl and Barrett Loseke.

“I really think we have a lot of pieces this year,” Hobbs said. “But I know that we’ve got the best closer in the nation.”

Cronin’s out pitch is his fastball, 92-95 mph with late movement up. Most can’t catch up to it.

There’s also a nice breaker, but it’s not consistent.

“He’s working to make it better,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He showed it some last year, but it sometimes hung. Last year mainly, he’d just let them see it outside the zone.”

Hobbs said there are some other weapons developing.

“But what he’s got is that one great pitch,” Hobbs said. “That fastball is amazing.”

It’s a big-league pitch. Cronin, who is rated the No. 52 draft prospect for 2019 by Baseball America, sometimes threw nothing but that for an entire close, but the hope is that he might be more than a one- or two-inning guy.

“I think there may be some times that we ask him to pitch three innings,” Van Horn said. “We think he can do that, with another pitch or two. That’s what we are working toward.

“Some weekends he might go long on Friday and might be done. Sometimes we might not need him but for a few pitches for that first save and then bring him back again on Sunday.”

Is there any thought of making Cronin a starter? Van Horn frowned at the question.

“Not here,” he said. “He’s our closer, the best in college baseball. I’ll let them figure out that (question) in pro ball.”

Hobbs is convinced Cronin can pitch back-to-back days and be just as effective. That means he’s more valuable than a starter.

“We’ve already seen him do it,” Hobbs said. “And, he was really good the second day.”

There were some minor changes to his recovery system that helped. One thing Cronin doesn’t want to change, the ritual coming out of the bullpen: a slap to the face.

Suggs, the burly former bullpen coach, would give him a sharp (but not too heavy) slap across his cheek just before the gates to the bullpen swung open. It was caught on camera early in the season when Cronin entered in a game against Arizona in San Diego, a save for a 1-0 victory.

Immediately, a fan made a call to someone in the UA administration complaining of harsh treatment from a coach. A quick check proved it to be pretty mundane.

“Well, it isn’t much of a slap,” Cronin said. “And, it was planned.”

It was the idea of former UA pitching coach Wes Johnson.

“Coach Johnson found a study that said it increased some blood flow levels in your body,” Cronin said. “I told him, ‘Then let’s do it.’ It’s something that increases your focus, and it was just a little slap.

“I think you could compare it to throwing the medicine ball around right before you do something. It just gets you started. I was all for it.”

Still, some UA officials thought it might be misunderstood. So one of the other bullpen pitchers held up a poster board in front of Cronin and Suggs to obscure view of the slap. They didn’t want any more calls suggesting there was “coach to player brutality.”

It wasn’t a perfect ritual, Cronin said. Suggs sometimes missed the target.

“He was trying to slap my cheek,” Cronin said. “He hit me in the ear twice. So my ear was buzzing for a couple of pitches.”

Cronin wants to do it again this season, but it won't be a slap from Suggs, recently hired to work in pro baseball.

“It’s cool, and it starts me up,” Cronin said. “I’ll keep doing it.”

Hobbs is busy worrying about other things, like how to break down his new pitchers in the performance lab, his specialty. He uses several tools, including the TrackMan system already in place thanks to Johnson, who left for the Minnesota Twins in November after two seasons at Arkansas.

Cronin said simply, “He’s the best with it. Coach Hobbs knows this stuff. I know he wants the system with 24 cameras in the lab. He’ll give you points to concentrate on.”

Cronin spent part of the summer with the USA Collegiate National Team but only made four appearances. He was a late arrival because of the two-week stay in Omaha. He did get to spend six days in Cuba.

“That was long enough,” he said. “It was definitely humbling to see the living conditions. I’ve never seen so many old automobiles - ancient.

“I don’t think I could have made it any longer, though. The food was tough for me and everyone else. There were only two meals I could eat. I found a place across the street from our hotel that had chicken tacos. I’d get three or four orders of chicken tacos and try to make that do me for the day.”

The trip to Omaha was better food, but not the desired result. Second place is not what the Hogs had in mind.

“We went there to win it,” Cronin said. “So we have to get back to Omaha. I’m not big on catchphrases, but I think we have one: Unfinished business.

“We get that from Coach Van Horn. He doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for us getting close and not winning. You don’t win it all, it’s not good enough. That’s our goal.”

Maybe there is another catchphrase waiting in the bullpen: Second place is like a slap in the face.

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