Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Bolden learns slider quickly, likely earns start with impressive save
Caleb Bolden might have been the final pitcher eliminated from consideration for Arkansas’ starting rotation at the College Baseball Showcase.
After his performance Sunday against Texas, Bolden put himself in good position to start for the Razorbacks’ four-game series against Southeast Missouri State that is scheduled to begin Thursday at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Bolden struck out seven batters and didn’t allow a hit in a four-inning save during Arkansas’ 4-0 victory over the Longhorns. The only blemish for the fourth-year right hander was a walk and a hit batter.
“What I saw was a really good pitcher,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.
“Obviously we thought about starting him and he was probably one that got left out of starting. He handled it real well and his start is coming.”
Bolden’s 92-93 mph fastball was good, but it was his 81-83 mph slider that seemed to give Texas the most trouble. It was a pitch Bolden developed earlier in the week while trying to learn a cutter from opening-day starter Zebulon Vermillion.
“He showed me his grip, so I started messing around with it and it came out so much better than my old grip,” Bolden said. “Coming from the low three-quarter arm slot that I have, it picked up a good eight inches of horizontal movement on it. I threw it in a bullpen before we came here and (pitching coach Matt) Hobbs and I were talking about it. He was like, ‘You need to throw that as much as you can.’
“You’re always picking your teammates’ brains and messing with it yourself, seeing if it works. Sometimes with my old grip, the ball would stay up and it’d get hit. With this one, it feels no choice but to have downward movement.”
Bolden was efficient Sunday and needed only 56 pitches to record 12 outs.
“There were a couple of times that we felt like we just would have liked to see…him pitch a little more to contact and not get deep into counts,” Van Horn said, “but his stuff was good.”
Bolden is nearly 15 months removed from Tommy John surgery and is beginning to look like the pitcher Arkansas coaches imagined he could be when he was a late signee in 2017.
Bolden, who went to high school at Pleasant Grove in Texarkana, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 16th round of the 2017 draft. He was committed to Seminole (Okla.) State College at the time, but Arkansas — which had lost multiple high school pitchers to the draft — called with a scholarship offer within an hour of the Rays’ selection.
He pitched sparingly on a deep, experienced staff as a freshman in 2018, then was unable to pitch in 2019 because of the elbow surgery.
The shutdown of the 2020 season ended what was shaping up to be a great comeback story. Bolden didn't face a live hitter until Jan. 28, but through 4 games he had allowed 2 earned runs, walked 3 and struck out 15 in 16 innings.
Hobbs said he was going to be the Razorbacks’ Game 3 pitcher at Mississippi State. The series was never played.
“He was healthy, but it wasn’t like he was 100% built up and all the way back,” Hobbs said.
“I think the command you saw last year is the same, but the stuff has gotten better.”
The velocity has also improved. Bolden’s fastball was topping out at around 87 mph last year.
“It was kind of disappointing to myself, but I was talking with our trainer Corey (Wood) and the doctor and he was like, ‘It’s going to be at least 15 months until you get your velocity back,’” Bolden said. “That’s what happened. Now I’m back to 90-93 and it just feels so much better coming out.”
While Sunday was only the 15th appearance in Bolden's career, Hobbs said the 22-year-old has plenty of experience.
“I think people sometimes discount the fact that (pitchers) are just rehabbing, but that’s a lot of experience in terms of being able to watch games, go through something that’s very challenging and be able to come out on the other side of it," Hobbs said.
“It’s a long process that’s really hard and he did a great job."
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