Taccolini, McKinney keys to pitching staff

By: Matt Jones Matt Jones's Twitter account
Published: Friday, January 27, 2017
Arkansas' Keaton McKinney warms Friday, Sept. 9, 2016, during practice at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
( Andy Shupe)
Arkansas' Keaton McKinney warms Friday, Sept. 9, 2016, during practice at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas opened preseason baseball practice Friday with some uncertainty about how best to utilize its two most experienced pitchers in 2017.

Senior Dominic Taccolini and junior Keaton McKinney were expected to have big seasons in 2016, but both struggled to fully recover from offseason surgeries — Taccolini a portion of a rib removed that had caused a blood clot, and McKinney torn hip muscle repaired. Taccolini started 13 games and finished with a 5.75 ERA, while McKinney’s ERA was 6.66 as a 12-game starter.

Their struggles contributed to an overall drop-off on the mound and Arkansas finished the season with the SEC’s worst ERA (5.02) and worst record (26-29, 7-23 SEC).

“That would be the key to our pitching staff if those older guys bounce back, if those guys can have a good season,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “With their experience and their stuff, when they are good, they are good. If those guys put together a good season and then you throw in a couple of guys who got experience last year, and a few of the new guys…then all of a sudden we have a pitching staff instead of just four or five guys.”

Taccolini and McKinney were opening weekend starters last season but at least one likely will be coming out of the bullpen when the Razorbacks open this season with a three-game series against Miami (Ohio) on Feb. 17-19. Sophomore right-handers Blaine Knight and Isaiah Campbell are leading candidates to start the opening weekend because of strong scrimmages in the fall, Van Horn said.

“Unless they take a step back, they’ll get the opportunity that first weekend out,” Van Horn said.

McKinney, who went 6-2 and pitched two complete games as a Freshman All-American in 2015, appears to be more of a candidate to start than Taccolini.

“(Keaton) threw a couple good innings here and there toward the end of fall ball where you’re going, ‘Wow, that kind of reminds us of the guy we had as a freshman,’ except he is throwing a little bit harder,” Van Horn said. “He’s a lot bigger, more physical.

“If he throws the way he threw his last bullpen, he might make his way back (into the starting rotation).”

Taccolini, a team captain, returned to Arkansas despite being drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 16th round last summer. It appears he is bound for the bullpen either in a long relief or closer role.

“We’re going to put him toward the back end of the game, but it won’t be in a true closer scenario because we’ve still got to drive his pitch count up just in case we do need to start him,” said Wes Johnson, Arkansas’ first-year pitching coach. “But it would be nice to have Dominic toward the end of the game.”

Van Horn called Taccolini the pitching staff’s “wild card,” and said the senior is open to pitching anywhere he is needed.

“He’s not fighting us on anything or asking for anything,” Van Horn said. “He just wants to go out and earn it.

“Any role we give him, I think he’s going to go out and give us his best effort.”

Short hops

Van Horn said there are no injuries to the team’s 44-player roster to begin the preseason. … In addition to Taccolini, Arkansas’ captains are second baseman Carson Shaddy and catcher Grant Koch. … The Razorbacks plan to scrimmage Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the preseason. All practices at Baum Stadium are open to the public. … The Razorbacks open the season with six straight home games against Miami (Ohio) and Bryant, then play five consecutive games away from home. Arkansas is scheduled to play at Louisiana Tech on Feb. 28 and March 1, then play Arizona (March 3), Nebraska (March 4) and Oklahoma State (March 5) as part of the Frisco College Baseball Classic near Dallas.

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