Matt Jones is the editor of the Hawgs Sports Network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas.
Hogs have made it work on the mound
Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs (center) speaks with pitcher Will McEntire (left) and catcher Parker Rowland during a game against Eastern Illinois on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Before the season, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn touted the deepest pitching staff of his 21-year tenure.
The team’s standing in the SEC — tied with Vanderbilt for first place with two weeks remaining in the regular season — might be a reflection of that depth. Despite injuries to projected starter Jaxon Wiggins and relief pitchers Koty Frank, Brady Tygart and Dylan Carter that have cost the Razorbacks countless innings, Arkansas’ pitchers are getting the job done more often than not.
“How could we be doing what we’re doing if we didn’t have depth?” Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said. “We all wish the numbers were a little better and I don’t think it’s been pretty, certainly, but you’ve got options that you continue to run out there, and those options are now getting better.
“It’s taken a little bit of time for some of them. There have been ups and downs, and it’s been painful at times, but it’s also been great at times.”
The third-ranked Razorbacks (36-12, 17-7 SEC) enter their series against seventh-ranked South Carolina this weekend as one of the best statistical pitching staffs in SEC play.
Arkansas’ 4.98 ERA in 24 SEC games ranks fourth behind Vanderbilt (4.54), Kentucky (4.76) and Tennessee (4.77).
The Razorbacks also have a 4.98 overall ERA, which ranks seventh in the conference.
Arkansas ranks first in saves (10), fifth in fewest walks (105), seventh in lowest batting average against (.259) and seventh in fewest hits allowed (206) during SEC play.
During their six-game winning streak against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, the Razorbacks have an ERA of 4.15.
Key to that winning streak has been the emergence of left-handers Zack Morris and Parker Coil. Morris is a team captain whose ERA was above 10 last month, and Coil is a freshman who did not make his SEC debut until a save situation against Texas A&M on April 29.
Coil and Morris have combined to throw 7 1/3 innings over the past two weekends. They combined to shut out Mississippi State for the final four innings of an 11-6 victory by the Razorbacks last Sunday.
“Parker Coil is finally becoming the guy that we thought he was going to be in terms of strike throwing and being able to come in and fill a couple of different roles,” Hobbs said. “Zack Morris getting better is really helping us significantly because it gives us an older guy that’s been there before, and he can go fill a variety of roles.”
Hobbs said Morris has made some adjustments to his mechanics that are more closely aligned with how he pitched late last season when he was one of Arkansas’ most trusted bullpen arms.
“He’s just throwing the ball with much more confidence,” Hobbs said. “His stuff has gotten a lot better. His average fastball velocity is about a mile-and-a-half harder today than it was at any point in the first month of the season.
"He's starting to see his velocity creep back up and his off-speed pitches have gained velocity. His slider is about two miles an hour harder now and the curveball has got better shape and some snap to it. I think he sees those things and that gives him some confidence.”
Following an 8-7 victory over Texas A&M on April 29, Van Horn recalled an in-season meeting with Morris in his office.
“He said, ‘I want to help the team. I’m still in it mentally. Don’t give up on me,’” Van Horn said.
Hobbs said he saw improvement from Morris at Missouri State on April 25 when he allowed 5 runs and recorded 2 outs.
“He pitched poorly against Missouri State in terms of the box score, but as we're watching him, we're like, ‘God, his stuff is a lot better,’” Hobbs said. “I know it's not working right now and it's a little painful to watch in terms of just how things going, but his stuff was a lot better.
"When he came off the mound it wasn't like he was totally beaten. He kind of was like, ‘Well, I know my stuff is better and it's coming.’ So we just stayed with him, and so far…over the last couple of weeks he's rewarding the faith, I think.”
In-season improvement across the board has been vital for the Razorbacks in the face of so many injuries. After Tygart and Frank were injured during the same week in early March, Carter became the team’s most-used reliever and Gage Wood became a strong closer after a series of hit-or-miss outings. Cody Adcock has bounced back in recent weeks after he was left off the mound during a mid-April series against Tennessee.
Freshmen Christian Foutch and Ben Bybee had successful outings against Tennessee before recent struggles.
Carter was lost to Tommy John surgery just as Tygart was beginning his comeback from a sprain to his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow during the Texas A&M weekend.
The Razorbacks have yet to announce their starting rotation for the South Carolina series, but chances are it will include Hunter Hollan and Tygart. Hollan was the No. 1 weekend starter until last week when coaches gave him two extra days to rest a hurting left leg, and Tygart has started both of his 20-pitch outings since returning from injury.
Hollan’s 63 pitches at Mississippi State were a personal low in an SEC game, but Hobbs said there were some encouraging signs.
“I know he didn't pitch as good as he would have liked to [at Mississippi State], but his stuff was much better,” Hobbs said. "I think we all felt really good about it and he felt good about it, too. He didn’t feel good about how he pitched; he felt good about his stuff. We know Hunter is going to be fine in terms of the strike zone, so I think we'll see a much better product next [time] out of him.”
Hobbs said Tygart’s velocity has been higher since his comeback. Coaches liked the 20-pitch outing that included 13 strikes at Mississippi State. Hobbs said the decision was made for Tygart to finish his pitch count of 30 to 35 in the bullpen so Will McEntire could start his outing at the start of a half inning.
“I’m happy with where he's at,” Hobbs said of Tygart. “And he feels good, which is probably the most important part.”
Tygart has not allowed a run since his return, and McEntire has piggybacked his starts with 10 2/3 innings of relief.
More from WholeHogSports: Same record, different feel for these Razorbacks
How the Razorbacks use left-hander Hagen Smith down the stretch will be intriguing. Since he began switching between relief and starting roles in SEC play, Smith has proven to be a lock-down closer for three-plus innings, but has not pitched more than five innings in any of his starts.
Van Horn said Smith “looked like a caged lion” when he came out of the chute throwing 97 mph in the first inning at Mississippi State last Friday. The Bulldogs went down quickly against him for two innings, but he required 84 pitches to get through the third through fifth innings.
On a night when Van Horn said pregame he hoped Smith would pitch six or more innings, the left-hander was pulled after the fifth inning with a pitch count of 112.
“There's a happy medium in there somewhere, and we've got to help him find it,” Hobbs said. “If he's going to start, we’ve got to help him find that. It's to the credit of the kid, he's pitched in so many different roles this year…and he's just done a lot of different things, so I have a tough time being too critical of any time he goes out there and he's feeling really good, just trying to go out and get hitters out.
“I can understand why it looks like he's out there trying to throw a million miles an hour in the first couple innings….We want him to be able to do that in the sixth and the seventh.”
“In terms of depth, we had enough to hold off and survive without Brady,” Hobbs added. “And some of that is just Hagen doing what he did in terms of filling a bunch of different roles…and Hunter Hollan stepping into the Friday role and being good. Now we can hopefully solidify a little bit of what we’re doing with the weekend rotation, but things are going to continue to evolve and grow as we continue to play the season.”
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