FAYETTEVILLE — Chris Oliver didn’t know what to expect from the 2014 Arkansas pitching staff as he prepared for his role in the offseason.
Oliver knew he was going to play a big part as either a starter or reliever. Jalen Beeks was back, too, to help lead the staff. But after watching talented veterans like Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin and Colby Suggs move on to professional baseball, Oliver had reservations about what a new-look group could achieve this season.
“With the draft last year, it didn’t look too hot,” Oliver said. “But the young guys came in, they stepped up. … That was good to see. I think that all goes back to (pitching) coach (Dave) Jorn and his philosophy and mentality with us.”
Arkansas’ pitching staff entered the season with plenty of questions, but hasn’t looked much different from the group that set the school record with a 1.89 earned run average in 2013. The Razorbacks leaned on their talented arms to reach the NCAA Tournament for the 13th straight season and will count on the group again when Arkansas opens the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional against Liberty at 6 p.m.
The strength of the staff has been a starting trio of Oliver (8-4, 2.45 ERA), who was named the starter for the regional opener, Beeks (5-4, 2.11 ERA) and sophomore Trey Killian (4-8, 2.18 ERA). Beeks hasn’t been able to pitch the past three weeks after suffering an elbow injury and remains questionable for the regional, but the Razorbacks have remained solid on the mound as youngsters adapt.
The group may not be as deep as last season’s record-setting bunch, but carries a 2.63 ERA into the Charlottesville Regional. Arkansas is part of a regional that boasts three pitching staffs among the top 15 in the NCAA in ERA.
“I knew we had some kids that were competitive and some hard workers that had some talent,” Jorn said. “So they just needed some innings to try to figure out whether or not they were going to be good enough to be able to compete.”
It was clear early on the Razorbacks had a trio of talented starters they could depend on in Killian, Oliver and Beeks. They replaced last season’s weekend rotation of Astin, Stanek and Randall Fant and have produced quality starts all season.
Their ability to throw deep into games also took pressure off a bullpen filled with pitchers with little college experience outside of reliever Michael Gunn.
Freshmen Zach Jackson, Dominic Taccolini, Alex Phillips and James Teague were starting college careers. Others like junior college transfer Jacob Stone and junior Jackson Lowery were getting their first stints with the Razorbacks.
“To me it seems like we have a lot of new people out there, new pitchers, coming out of the bullpen,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said earlier this week. “Last year’s team was pretty experienced. This year’s team has gained its experience. That’s what’s been big, too, down the stretch, is we’re gaining a lot of experience, not only to finish out this year, but also for next year and down the road.”
The SEC Tournament was a perfect example of Arkansas’ potential. While the Razorbacks didn’t get sterling performances from everyone, the five-game stay tested and taxed nearly everyone on the staff in postseason situations.
Jackson, Taccolini and Colin Poche earned starts over the final three games of the tournament. Arkansas gained confidence in Landon Simpson out of the bullpen, while Stone solidified his spot as the new closer. Then Teague, who had pitched just 11 innings in nonconference games, played a vital role in helping Arkansas shrug off a 6-0 deficit to beat Ole Miss and advance to the semifinals against LSU.
“That was an opportunity for some guys that hadn’t gotten a lot of innings and had not gotten a lot of opportunity to maybe step up a little bit,” Jorn said. “(Teague and Simpson), those two kids looked like they were ready to go and got three pitches that they can throw for strikes and be able to keep us in some games.”
But there’s no question Arkansas’ success this week starts with Oliver and Killian, who are the only pitchers guaranteed to be on the mound in Charlottesville.
“I feel like we can beat any teams in the country with these two guys going,” Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson said.
The duo played a critical role in Arkansas winning games down the stretch, turning in impressive starts with Beeks unable to help because of the elbow injury. They’ll have a chance to put Arkansas in the driver’s seat of the Charlottesville Regional, too, with impressive performances the next two days.
“I feel real good about them,” Van Horn said. “They both have 10, 11 starts counting the tournament in SEC play on weekends whether they were pitching Friday, Saturday, Sunday because it’s moved around a little bit. They’ve seen everybody. They’ve pitched against the types of teams we’re going to face.”
But it also takes a minimum of three wins to advance out of a regional.
So Arkansas knows strong performances throughout its reshaped staff the next few days will be key to helping the Razorbacks accomplish one thing last season’s record-setting staff couldn’t produce: a regional championship.
“It’s going to take everybody,” Killian said. “It’s going to take everybody contributing out of that bullpen if we’re going to make it a Super Regional and make it to Omaha.”
CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA.) REGIONAL TICKET
No. 2 Arkansas (38-23) vs. No. 3 Liberty (41-16)
When: Tonight at 6 p.m.
Where: Davenport Field in Charlottesville, Va.
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
On the Mound: Arkansas RHP Chris Oliver (8-4, 2.45 ERA) vs. Liberty RHP Trey Lambert (11-2, 2.10 ERA)
At the Plate: Arkansas – 2B Brian Anderson (.311, 6 HR, 49 RBI), DH Clark Eagan (.311, 2 HR, 11 RBI), LF Joe Serrano (.299, 21 RBI), RF Andrew Benintendi (.282, HR, 26 RBI), 1B Eric Fisher (.265, 9 HR, 43 RBI); Liberty — 2B Ryan Seitz (.362, 12 HR, 42 RBI), 1B Alex Close (.324, 8 HR, 45 RBI), SS Dalton Britt (.300, 34 RBI), RF Will Shepherd (.281, HR, 23 RBI), CF Ashton Perritt (.273, 2 HR, 23 RBI)
CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA.) REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Game 1: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Bucknell, 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 2: No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 3 Liberty, 6 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary): - Game 4 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m.