FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas enjoyed its best stretch the past three weeks, securing an NCAA Tournament berth by winning nine of the final 12 games.
Pitcher Jalen Beeks said Tuesday he was proud of his teammates after watching their success from the dugout. But it didn’t exactly change the junior’s mood about his role after being a key member of the pitching staff most of the season.
“It was a terrible three weeks,” Beeks said Tuesday.
The left-hander, who was Arkansas’ opening-day starter, couldn’t step on the mound to help during the tournament-clinching stretch because of an elbow injury he suffered May 3. Beeks, who missed three straight starts, hopes his absence won’t last much longer as the Razorbacks (38-23) open NCAA Tournament play against Liberty (41-16) in the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional on Friday night.
In fact, Beeks was optimistic he could be called on to help in the regional after a light bullpen session. He’s not counting on returning to his spot in the weekend rotation, but wants to help the Razorbacks in any capacity. If his elbow allows it.
“I’ve just got to get a little bit of feel back,” Beeks said. “Hopefully we’re still working on it. I’ve got a lot of treatment left. I don’t want to give you guys a straight answer because I don’t know yet. Anything can happen. A little tweak while I’m warming up on Thursday and I won’t pitch, you know?”
It has been that way for most of the past three weeks. While Arkansas found a way to win games behind starters Trey Killian and Chris Oliver, Beeks was waiting patiently for what he described as a “Grade 1” sprain in his elbow to heal.
Beeks (5-4, 2.11 ERA) admitted the injury was “scary” at first because he didn’t know if it signaled the end of his college career. But an examination determined the elbow issue didn’t require Tommy John surgery. Beeks just needed some time off.
“The doctors weren’t worried about it,” Beeks said. “They just said get some rest, that’s it. So it’s really not a big injury at all. They said as long as I take a couple of weeks off, it shouldn’t plague me more down the road.”
Beeks’ absence forced Arkansas to dig deeper into its pitching staff. Dominic Taccolini earned three starts since Beeks’ injury, while Colin Poche and Zach Jackson also logged starts in the SEC Tournament. The Razorbacks even called on little-used pitchers like James Teague and Landon Simpson to log innings.
It has helped Arkansas gain confidence it can work its way through an NCAA Regional without Beeks this week. But Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn said there’s no doubt the Razorbacks would benefit by having the veteran back.
“We don’t have a ton of depth,” Jorn said. “I mean, the strength of our pitching staff really was our starting pitching. Oliver and Killian and Beeks. Those guys were going out and giving us 7, 8 innings every time. … So without Beeks, it makes that bullpen work a lot harder and those guys have to pitch a lot more. To be able to have him with his experience and his ability in there, it’s very big.”
Arkansas will remain cautious with the left-hander’s elbow as they put together their pitching plan for the regional.
Jorn said he only sees Beeks being available for roughly 50 pitches if he continues to progress without issues the next few days. But it was clear Beeks hadn’t completely recovered after his bullpen session Tuesday.
“He said about one every five throws he felt a little bit,” Jorn said. “But he says he feels like he’s going to be good to go. I don’t expect him to be able to be starting.”
If Beeks pitches out of the bullpen it will be his first in a relief stint this season.
He thrived in the role last season, working as a valuable set-up man to former closer Colby Suggs. Beeks went 6-2 with a 2.20 ERA during his sophomore season, but struggled on the mound in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional last season.
Beeks allowed three runs on four hits in the eighth inning of Arkansas’ 4-1 loss to Bryant in the regional opener. Two nights later, Beeks uncorked two wild pitches that allowed the game-tying and go-ahead runs score in a 4-3 loss to Kansas State.
So Beeks had plenty to prove as one of the leaders of Arkansas’ young staff in 2014.
“I’ve been thinking about it since last year,” Beeks said. “I’ve been wanting to redeem myself. I’m not nervous about it or anything. I’m just ready to prove myself worthy for the University of Arkansas. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Beeks is disappointed the opportunity isn’t likely to come in his season-long spot as a starter. But he’s ready to pitch in any capacity after missing the past three weeks.
“I’m ready to be back, wherever I can,” Beeks said. “We don’t know the rotation yet or anything. I just know whoever goes out there is going to do a good job.”
NCAA 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.