Baseball observations: Efficient starts, situational hitting, pitcher's debut and more

By: Matt Jones
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2019
Arkansas pitcher Cody Scroggins throws during a game against Louisiana Tech on Sunday, March 10, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Arkansas pitcher Cody Scroggins throws during a game against Louisiana Tech on Sunday, March 10, 2019, in Fayetteville.

— Arkansas starters Connor Noland and Cody Scroggins were highly efficient over the first several innings of their starts against Louisiana Tech last week.

Facing a lineup that included five .300-plus hitters, both right handers delivered the best start of their career and left in line for a win. Scroggins earned the win in the series finale after Noland took his fourth no-decision in as many starts the day before.

In both games, the Razorbacks' ability to get off the field quickly stood out. Noland's pitch count through five innings Saturday was 60, while Scroggins' five-inning pitch count was 71 - a per-out average of 4 and 4.7 pitches, respectively, over the first five innings.

"Cody threw a few more pitches because he had a bunch more strikeouts, but there weren't a lot of deep counts," Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said. "It was strike one, strike two and he might miss a pitch out of the zone and then strike three or a ball in play."

Noland, who isn't overly powerful and pitches to contact, was almost untouchable for his first five innings Saturday. He entered the sixth with a 5-1 lead and having only allowed one hit and one walk.

Facing the Bulldogs' 1-2-3 hitters for the third time, the sixth went haywire for Noland, due in part to some circumstances beyond his control. First baseman Trevor Ezell had a throwing error that allowed the first Tech batter of the inning to reach base. After a single put two on with no outs, three-hole hitter Mason Mallard hit a drive to center field that looked like an out off the bat, but rode a strong southwest wind out of the park.

"It was a really tough environment, but I thought he threw the ball really well," Hobbs said. "On a normal day that ball to center probably doesn't get out and he gets out of the game a little bit cleaner than his final line ended up looking."

Things fell apart for the Razorbacks' bullpen, which allowed seven more runs in a 12-7 loss.

It was expected that the finale could be another high-scoring game. Scroggins entered his third career start with a 7.88 ERA and had never thrown more than 3 2/3 innings in a game.

Scroggins hit the first batter of the game in the shoulder, but retired 11 of the next 12. His mid-90s fastball was electric - the glove-side fastball was the best Hobbs said he has ever seen from Scroggins - and he threw several changeups instead of his slider, the preferred off-speed pitch in his first two starts.

"He's a tough kid and he was able to use his entire arsenal," Hobbs said. "I can't say enough about how good he was. Him and (Isaiah Campbell) were bookends on the weekend and gave us a chance to win the series."

Campbell threw 98 pitches in his six-inning, 10-strikeout no-decision in the Friday game. Scroggins threw 88 pitches to get 11 strikeouts.

"That’s the best I’ve ever seen him look," Campbell said of Scroggins. "He just attacked and competed, he looked very comfortable on the mound, like there was nothing else he was worried about, just one pitch at a time. I think he threw 88 pitches through six innings with 11 Ks and that’s tough today. That’s being really efficient and having not many counts more than four pitches, so I’m really proud of him."

Scroggins' performance against Louisiana Tech earned him another start this weekend against Missouri. Campbell and Noland have manned the top starting positions since the beginning of the year, but it was unclear whether Scroggins would stick in the third spot.

Arkansas had approached his starts like bullpen days, asking him for shorter outings while he increased his pitch count.

After the first extended work of his career, Scroggins has shown he has the endurance to keep the third spot. The key is whether he keep showing the stuff to go with it.

"His work the last couple of weeks in the midweek has been really good," Hobbs said. "It's something he hasn't been able to do as a reliever in the past, throw midweek bullpens and to get on a regular schedule. Him adapting that, that's a tough thing to do and he's done a great job with it."

"I hope he keeps it all year."

Score when you can

One of the areas that made Arkansas so good last season was its ability to score runs when the opportunity presented itself.

The Razorbacks had a higher batting average in 2018 with runners on base (.298) than they did when the bases were empty (.294).

Arkansas had a 49.7 percent success rate advancing runners, and when the Razorbacks had a runner on third base with less than two outs, they scored 61.8 percent of the time.

Statistically, those areas are better so far in 2019 - .349 with runners on base, .267 with the bases empty, a 55.2 percent rate advancing runners and 62.7 percent rate scoring from third with less than two outs.

But common sense suggests those numbers will level out against better pitching in the coming weeks. Consider that Arkansas' weekend opponents so far have team ERAs between 4.97 and 7.55.

The Razorbacks have 42 RBI in 67 opportunities with runners on third and less than two outs.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn has expressed concern about the inability to score from third at times this season. At the Swatter's Club luncheon earlier this week, Van Horn said simply: "If you get a runner on third with less than two outs, you've got to score."

He seemed less concerned following Wednesday's win over Western Illinois when the Razorbacks failed to score with the bases loaded in the first inning, and were thrown out at the plate trying to score on a sacrifice fly in the fourth.

Arkansas had successful at-bats in those situations later in the game, including in the eighth inning when pinch hitters Trey Harris and Matt Goodheart had consecutive one-out singles to run-rule the Leathernecks.

"We did get some big hits there the second half of the game and kind of put it away," Van Horn said. "But you’re right, early in the game we left some guys out there and that was frustrating. You can’t do that against a really good pitcher. You have to score when you can."

Arkansas center fielder Dominic Fletcher had a successful sacrifice fly prior to the inning-ending double play in the fourth. He is one of the best on the team with runners on third and less than two outs, with 5 RBI in eight opportunities.

Fletcher said some hitters might be pressing and some might be swinging at bad pitches, but said the overall approach doesn't need to change.

"The bottom line is we've just got to execute," Fletcher said.

Home sweet home

Arkansas has had one of the best home-field advantages for years, but the team is in the midst of its most dominant multi-year run at Baum-Walker Stadium.

The Razorbacks enter this weekend's series against Missouri with a 12-1 home record this season and a 73-13 record since the beginning of 2017. Arkansas has lost three home games in the past calendar year.

The Razorbacks' rubber-match win over Louisiana Tech last week marked the fifth consecutive time in which Arkansas won a regular-season series that was tied 1-1 going into the third game. The Razorbacks also won their super regional against South Carolina last season in the same scenario.

"Good teams find a way to win on Sundays," Arkansas shortstop Casey Martin said. "I think (against Louisiana Tech) we showed what kind of team we can be."

Against Missouri this weekend, the Razorbacks will be looking to win their 14th consecutive three-game weekend series at home. The last visiting team to win two of three on a regular-season weekend was Ole Miss in April 2017, although Missouri State defeated Arkansas in two of three games during the 2017 NCAA regional in Fayetteville.

Voices of the Razorbacks

By their 13th game of the season, the Razorbacks were using their fifth play-by-play radio announcer.

Phil Elson, the team's primary play-by-play voice, has missed 11 games this season. Many know Elson for his work in the baseball booth, but he also serves as the voice of the Razorbacks' women's basketball team. As the basketball season winds down, those games take precedent over early-season baseball games.

The scheduling conflicts have existed for Elson since he took over the dual roles beginning in the 2014-15 school year, but there have been more conflicts this season than in the past because of weather and basketball success. More schedule conflicts are likely to arise later this month as Arkansas plays in the basketball postseason, either in the NCAA Tournament or WNIT.

Elson has been unable to call two home baseball games because of schedule changes related to weather, and the Razorbacks' run to the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament championship game kept him away for all of last week's games against Charlotte and Louisiana Tech.

The Razorbacks have gone all over to find replacements for Elson this season. Little Rock-based broadcaster Scott Inman has been the primary fill-in and worked six games.

Arkansas also used Phil Brame, who is based out of the North Carolina office of Learfield IMG College and called all three games at Southern Cal in February; Chuck Barrett, the Razorbacks' football and men's basketball play-by-play man, called two games - his first since giving up Arkansas baseball play-by-play duties in 2014; and Benjamin Kelly, the play-by-play voice for the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, filled in for the first time during the Louisiana Tech series.

"The weird thing is, that's how I started doing Arkansas games," said Elson, who previously was the voice of the Double-A Arkansas Travelers. "I filled in for Chuck here."

Arkansas' baseball broadcasts are popular. According to Learfield IMG College, Razorback Sports Network has had more streams than any other college broadcast on TuneIn since the baseball season began.

According to TuneIn, RSN was the most popular college channel on its website in 2018, a ranking that takes into account streams for football, baseball and men's and women's basketball.

Elson will call all three games during the Missouri series this weekend, but it's unclear whether he will be able to call any of the games the following week at Texas or Alabama.

Who is that guy?

Elijah Trest was one of the first players to commit to Arkansas' 2018 signing class when he pledged on July 4, 2016, between his sophomore and junior years of high school.

The native of White Oak, Texas - near Longview - was likely the final Razorback to make his debut this season. The right hander pitched the final inning in Arkansas' 11-0 series-finale victory over Louisiana Tech.

It left many asking who he was and where has he been.

Trest (6-3, 205 pounds) excited fans with his velocity that topped out at 95 mph on the stadium radar gun. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn indicated that reading was probably a little hot and his velocity was more in the 90-93 mph range.

More than his power, how Trest handled the moment might have been his most impressive characteristic. Consider that he entered the game looking to keep intact a shutout, a point or pride for any pitcher and staff.

The first batter he faced reached base when left fielder Curtis Washington Jr. dropped a routine ball hit his way. After missing low on the first two pitches to the next batter, Trest bounced back and struck out three, mixing his fastball with some upper-70s off-speed deliveries. He threw 20 pitches in the inning.

"Adding another piece to the bullpen is always exciting," Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said. "That's merit-based to get those innings. We're not just throwing them out there.

"I'm happy for him to go out and have some success. It's not easy to find adversity in an 11-0 game sometimes...and it was really good to see him bounce back from early adversity like he did."

Trest was the fourth Arkansas freshman to strike out the side in his debut inning this season. Left handers Patrick Wicklander, Evan Taylor and Caden Monke also did it earlier this year.

He was not so sharp in his second outing against Western Illinois on Wednesday when he hit a batter and allowed two singles to give up the only run in the past three games. He pitched more to contact and had just 12 pitches in his only inning, aided by an inning-ending double play.

Trest came to Arkansas as a two-way player. He played in the outfield during the Razorbacks' fall practices and showed off good power at the plate and in the field. He homered during one fall scrimmage and threw out speedy Christian Franklin trying to leg out a double in another.

Trest recently converted to pitching full time. In the days leading up to his debut, Trest was getting live work indoors, pitching to Arkansas hitters who weren't playing much in games.





Hitter of the Week- Heston Kjerstad

After entering the month batting .222, Kjerstad's average has soared to .353 entering SEC play. He has been red hot the past four games, going 11-for-16 and reaching base in 15 of 20 plate appearances.

Kjerstad had multiple hits in the final two games of the Louisiana Tech series and in the first game against Western Illinois, when he was 4-for-4 and a double shy of hitting for the cycle. Kjerstad singled to the outfield in his final at-bat, but wisely stopped at first base and didn't try to leg out a difficult double.

As a freshman, Kjerstad showed an advanced approach by hitting the ball up the middle and to the opposite field. He belted a home run to his pull side in the season opener, then struggled to hit to anywhere but the side for several games. After some work on his leg kick, his swing path improved and six of his past 11 hits have been up the middle or to left field. In the game in which he nearly hit for the cycle, Kjerstad hit a triple to center and a home run into the left-field bullpen.

Kjerstad, who bats second in the lineup, has been aided by production from leadoff hitter Casey Martin, who has reached base in 11 of his past 18 plate appearances. Pitchers have had to pitch to Kjerstad more out of the stretch and Martin's threat to steal a base has caused Kjerstad to see more fastballs.

Pitcher of the Week - Cody Scroggins

Scroggins' six-inning shutout against Louisiana Tech was a pleasant surprise. He had never pitched more than 3 2/3 innings in a game previously.

Scroggins also had a career-high 11 strikeouts and worked quite a bit on the changeup he developed during the offseason. The success of that third pitch and the ability to extend his outing - he threw 88 pitches on an 80-pitch count - could keep Scroggins in the starting rotation, and could put less stress on the bullpen at the end of the weekend.

Hit of the Week - Casey Martin

With Arkansas ahead by one run, Martin launched a three-run home run to left field to kickstart a rout of Louisiana Tech in the Sunday rubber match.

Martin was out in front of two changeups in the at-bat, including a 3-2 pitch that he tipped foul. The next pitch was an elevated 88 mph fastball that was left over the middle of the plate. Martin hit the ball with great force and it left his bat with a 103 mph exit velocity. The ball traveled 394 feet.

The homer was part of a sequence of at-bats that put Martin back in rhythm as the Razorbacks' leadoff hitter. He went through a 0-for-16 slump that bled into Saturday's game against the Bulldogs, but followed with three home runs in three games.

Gem of the Week - Jack Kenley

Arkansas coaches had starting at second base in mind when Trevor Ezell enrolled last summer, but Ezell's shoulder surgery necessitated a change in those plans. Ezell has started first base most games this season and Jack Kenley, typically used on the left side of the infield his first two seasons, has manned second well.

Ezell got a chance to start and play at second during the Tuesday game against Western Illinois, but it was obvious his shoulder wasn't yet strong enough for the position. He had a throwing error and couldn't make another, tougher throw from the hole that was ruled the Leathernecks' only hit of the game. Afterward, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said Ezell probably wasn't even 50 percent of his potential at the position.

Kenley was a mid-game replacement at second and made the week's best defensive play to end the top of the eighth inning.

Kenley backhanded a ground ball behind the bag, then with his momentum taking him further away, flipped the ball against his body to shortstop Casey Martin for the force out.

Things I like

• Sunday SEC games in Fayetteville will begin a little later this year. Games that aren't picked up by network television, like the one this weekend against Missouri on SEC Network-Plus, will begin at 1:30 p.m. - 30 minutes later than Sunday start times the last several years. The change attempts to correct a complaint I've heard from fans for years, that the 1 o'clock start times on Sunday made it difficult to arrive by the first pitch if you attend a church service. Arkansas hosts only three Sunday SEC games this year - against Missouri, March 31 against Ole Miss, and April 28 against Tennessee, which will begin at 4 p.m. because it was selected to be televised by SEC Network. Series against Mississippi State and LSU were changed to Thursday-Friday-Saturday. The Mississippi State change was to avoid playing a game on Easter Sunday, which has become commonplace at many SEC programs in recent years. The LSU change accommodates a request by ESPNU to televise the opening game on a Thursday night. Non-conference Sunday games this year began at 1 p.m. because of differences in the way teams travel and the need to be back on their respective campuses for class the following day. Most non-conference teams fly commercial (sometimes through Tulsa, Okla.) or bus to Fayetteville, whereas most SEC teams take chartered flights home the night of the game.

• Arkansas seems more willing to release information obtained from its TrackMan system this season, primarily exit velocity and home-run distances. According to TrackMan, Zack Plunkett's second-inning home run in Game 2 of the Louisiana Tech series had an exit velocity of 104 mph, and Casey Martin's second-inning home run a day later had an exit speed of 103 mph and traveled 394 feet.

Things I Don't Like

• I'm confident no pitcher would last long in Dave Van Horn's program by deliberately throwing at the head of a batter. Home plate umpire Wes Hamilton might not have known that and might not have cared when he ejected Jacob Burton in the ninth inning of the second game of the Louisiana Tech series. One pitch after allowing a three-run home run that essentially put the game away, Burton hit Louisiana Tech's nine-hole hitter, Chris Clayton, in the helmet. Clayton fortunately was OK. Hamilton ejected Burton immediately, a decision that carried an automatic four-game suspension. In doing so, Hamilton nearly created more problems. More so than the pitch itself, the umpire's demonstrative demeanor appeared to be what brought a few Louisiana Tech players onto the warning track. The players had shown no tension toward one another to that point in the series, and Van Horn and Tech coach Lane Burroughs are good friends who used to work with one another. In the moments following the game, Burroughs told me he knew unequivocally that a deliberate pitch wouldn't have been called from the Arkansas dugout. "I know those guys too well," he said. He said it was most likely a case of a young pitcher trying to throw too hard. "We have guys on our staff that have big misses a lot and you worry about them hitting people," Burroughs said. A warning, which would have been the first of the game or series, would have been justified. Taking away a sizable portion of a player's college season was an overreaction.

• Replay must be clear to overturn a call on the field, and that did not appear to be the case Tuesday when a run was taken off the board. Jordan McFarland was called safe at the plate on a tag up from third base. It was clearly a close play, but no TV angle showed definitive proof that Western Illinois catcher CJ Schaeffer Jr. tagged McFarland before or after he touched the plate with his foot. It was the type of play where the call on the field should have been upheld.

Hold on to your hats

A couple of times in the past week, it has felt like we were watching baseball on the High Plains.

Arkansas' second games against Louisiana Tech and Western Illinois were played during National Weather Service-issued wind advisories, with sustained winds of between 20-30 mph and gusts between 40-50 mph both days.

The wind can do some funny things to a baseball. There were four over-the-fence home runs during Arkansas' second game against Louisiana Tech (there also was an inside-the-park homer by Casey Martin) and at least two were clearly wind aided and likely would have dropped before the fence on a normal day.

There was a foul ball hit by Trevor Ezell that should have landed several rows deep in the seats, but hit a wall of wind and dropped like a duck at the warning track. At least three players and one umpire lost their hat when they turned into a gust of wind.

"We'd rather play in cold than wind," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "It's kind of like golfers - you don't like playing in the wind. Whenever the ball is not big enough to get through the wind, it just pushes it all over the place. When it's already slicing, you can see some crazy things happen. It turns routine fly balls into doubles, and balls that would have been over someone's head into outs possibly."

Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad is used to playing in those elements, having grown up in Amarillo, Texas.

"Back home we don't call it wind," Kjerstad said. "It's just a normal breeze for us.

"There are probably games I've played in 50-60 mph gusts, with consistent winds of 30 or 40."

Playing in the outfield is one of the most difficult elements on high-wind days and scorekeepers generally are more lenient on what appear to be misplayed fly balls. Arkansas' outfielders are told to keep their feet moving at all times and never to assume that they have a ball squared up to their glove.

"You've got to know the wind, especially when it's changing," Kjerstad said. "You've got to keep an eye on that flag. Depending on which way it's blowing, you've got to make sure you keep it on a certain side of your body, or else the wind pushes it too far."

A lesser-considered element of the wind is the toll it takes on the pitchers.

"The wind will take you off just a little bit from time to time," Van Horn said. "It will definitely help you guide the ball out of the strike zone some."

The players aren't the only ones affected by the high wind during the Louisiana Tech game. Most of the TV camera operators were shooting from elevated positions, which made it difficult to hold the cameras steady or smoothly pan from left to right, and led to some plays not being shown on the game broadcasts.

Reunion time

Multiple coaches and players will see some familiar faces and settings in the next nine games.

• Pitching coach Matt Hobbs will be in a dugout opposite of Missouri, his alma mater, for the first time. Hobbs played for the Tigers from 1999-2002 and coached there from 2011-15.

• Infielder Trevor Ezell will face his former head coach, Missouri's Steve Bieser. Ezell played for Bieser at Southeast Missouri State for two seasons before Bieser took the Missouri job following the 2016 season.

• Missouri outfielder Thomas Broyles is the grandson of the late Frank Broyles, the longtime Arkansas athletics director and football coach. Thomas Broyles attended Fayetteville High School and began his college career at Northwest Florida State College before transferring to Mizzou. His older brother, Franco, was on the Razorbacks' team in 2011.

• Outfielder Heston Kjerstad will play for the first time at Disch-Falk Field in Austin, where his older brother, Dex, played one season for the Texas Longhorns. Heston Kjerstad, no doubt, is familiar to Texas fans. He played in all three games against the Longhorns last season. At the College World Series, Kjerstad was 3-for-5 with 3 RBI and two runs scored, and ran over Texas first baseman Jake McKenzie in one of the more memorable plays of the year.

• Hitting coach Nate Thompson will make his first trip back to Hammonds Field in Springfield, Mo., on March 26 for a game between the Razorbacks and Missouri State. Thompson was the hitting coach at Missouri State for three seasons from 2015-17.

Quotable

"They’re running a lot more this year. They seem more athletic. I think (Dave Van Horn) is back to his roots of running and playing a little bit more small ball. I like their club. I know he’s not really happy with the way they’re playing right now, but they’ve only got two losses on the year. When those guys get rolling, they’re going to be hard to beat." - Louisiana Tech coach Lane Burroughs on Arkansas following the series finale

"Coach Van Horn mentioned that we kind of pride ourselves on being gritty, I guess, a blue-collar team that's going to scrap and fight you every inch of the way. I feel like there is definitely that mentality with this team that we have the talent to hurt anywhere on the field, up and down the lineup. I think if someone has to face this team three days in a row, they're going to have a tough time getting at us two of those three times." - Arkansas infielder Jack Kenley following the Razorbacks' series win over Louisiana Tech

"His fastball is what they're looking for up there. And I mean way up there, in the big leagues." - Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn on closer Matt Cronin, who is projected to be a high-round draft pick later this year

Closing thoughts

It is likely that Arkansas will look back at its series win over Louisiana Tech fondly when the season ends.

The Bulldogs were a highly-focused, veteran bunch that came to Fayetteville with the postseason in mind. Louisiana Tech was left out of the NCAA Tournament with 39 wins a year ago and beefed up its non-conference schedule to ensure - to the best of its ability - that a low RPI would not keep the team out of the field again.

A single road win over a quality program like Arkansas can do wonders for Tech at the end of the season. A single home loss can do some good for the Razorbacks, too.

Arkansas has looked like a refocused team in the past three games, outscoring Tech once and a weak Western Illinois team twice by a combined score of 30-1. The Razorbacks' best hitters appear to be getting on track, the starting pitching has been strong and the bullpen has been good with the exception of its seven-run meltdown in the wind against Louisiana Tech.

Missouri might not be as strong as Tech from top to bottom. The Tigers have played the weakest schedule in the SEC - ranked 229th nationally by Warren Nolan - and their signature wins to this point came during a sweep of 4-9 Northwestern. Missouri has losses to North Florida (twice), Northeastern, Rhode Island and South Dakota State, teams with a combined record of 21-29 in all other games.

Missouri's trio of left-handed starters might create some trouble - the Razorbacks are batting 35 points higher against right handers - but of all the SEC series on Arkansas' schedule, this looks like the most winnable. Missouri and Alabama - the Razorbacks' opponent the following weekend - were picked to finish last in the SEC's two divisions by league coaches.

One challenge for the Razorbacks this weekend is to stay focused on the series at hand and not overlook Missouri in anticipation of the midweek showdown at No. 18 Texas that begins Tuesday.

The Longhorns are one of the more tested teams in the country, having played weekend series against LSU and Stanford heading into their Big 12 opener against Texas Tech, but midweek games are hard to handicap, especially after conference play begins. For Texas, the Arkansas series is in the middle of conference games against Texas Tech and TCU, arguably the Longhorns' two biggest challengers for a Big 12 title.

Arkansas freshman left hander Patrick Wicklander has had consecutive strong midweek starts against Charlotte and Western Illinois, and is likely to get the ball for the first game in Austin. It still seems plausible that Wicklander could work his way into the weekend rotation and break up the Razorbacks' parade of right handers.

It will be an intriguing outing to watch because the Longhorns have a veteran lineup and plenty of hitters that resemble what Wicklander will see later in the SEC season.

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