FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has given the ball to Trey Killian to open a series – or postseason tournament – for eight straight weeks.
But when the Razorbacks begin the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional against Liberty tonight, Killian will be watching teammate Chris Oliver from the Arkansas dugout.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn made a surprising move Thursday morning, announcing that Oliver will be on the mound when the Razorbacks (38-23) face the Flames (41-16) at Virginia’s Davenport Field. Van Horn explained later he believes Liberty is a “little better matchup” for Oliver than Killian.
“That’s what it’s about this time of year,” Van Horn said in Charlottesville. “Some matchups are bad and we just felt like Chris was the guy we needed to throw. … I would say Oliver and Killian, to me it’s flip a coin. They’ve been really good for us, especially down the stretch. Their numbers are almost identical - ERA, number of innings, so we just felt like maybe that was a little better matchup.”
Oliver (8-4, 2.45 ERA) has been sharp the past few weeks, helping Arkansas wrap up an NCAA Regional berth with strong starts. After Killian pitched Arkansas to a 4-0 win against Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament last Tuesday, Oliver handcuffed Ole Miss potent lineup during a 2-1 victory in the second game of the tournament.
The 1-2 punch was expected to remain the same when Arkansas began preparing for the Charlottesville Regional. In fact, Oliver was asked about starting the second game Wednesday and said he would be prepared for any opponent.
He maintained that stance even though he moved up one day in the pitching plans.
“My mindset didn’t change,” Oliver said Thursday. “I’ve just got to be ready to go and do my job (tonight) …. I’m ready to get out there.”
Killian (4-8, 2.18 ERA) will face either Bucknell or Virginia on Saturday. But Van Horn stressed the late change isn’t an indication Arkansas is trying to save Killian for a potential matchup against the Cavaliers in the winner’s bracket Saturday.
“All you’ve got to do is look at the numbers and we’re actually going with a guy who is older,” Van Horn said about Oliver. “His stuff is very good and that’s why you’re seeing his name mentioned high in the draft in about a week.”
Arkansas outfielder Tyler Spoon said Thursday the Razorbacks are confident Oliver will give them a chance to beat Liberty tonight. He said it doesn’t matter which pitcher starts against the Flames because both starters have been strong all season.
“I feel confident with either one,” Spoon said. “Every time they go out they give us a great performance and a chance to win. That’s what you look for. Hopefully we can string together some hits. Sometimes we get three or four and that’s more than enough for these guys. They do a great job every time and that makes it easy for us.”
The Razorbacks thought they were facing a dangerous opponent to open last year’s Manhattan (Kan.) Regional and were right, suffering a 4-1 loss to Bryant. Van Horn said his team better be prepared for another challenge against the Flames tonight.
Liberty is an NCAA Regional for the second straight season and is confident after last year’s success. The Flames were the runner-up in the Columbia (S.C.) Regional, beating Clemson twice before falling to South Carolina in the regional final.
“Our opponent, Liberty, I know three weeks ago was probably on the bubble to host a regional,” Van Horn said Thursday. “They’re a really talented club and have a lot of pitching depth. It’s a team that took South Carolina as far as they wanted last year in their regional down there, and knocked off Clemson.
“This is a team with experience and it’s going to be a major challenge.”
It’s no secret how important winning the opener is to advancing as well.
Arkansas couldn’t recover after falling into the loser’s bracket last season. The Razorbacks won their next two games to set up a matchup against Kansas State, but couldn’t push the Wildcats into an elimination game.
Arkansas has lost its first regional game in two of the past three seasons.
“If you don’t win game one and your goal is to win the regional, you’ve got to win four in a row,” Van Horn said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to win that ballgame. We’ll throw whoever we need to throw and take it from there.”
Arkansas made a subtle change to its bullpen two weeks ago when Jacob Stone replaced Michael Gunn as the team’s closer. Stone was successful in the spot during the SEC Tournament, earning saves in both one-run wins against Ole Miss.
Stone — who has been one of Arkansas’ most dependable relievers this season — said it doesn’t matter when he is called on out of the bullpen. It doesn’t change his job whether he’s pitching in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings.
“I don’t really see any difference,” Stone said. “To me, it’s not a different role. My job is to get outs, regardless of the situation. I’m just going to go in there and try to do my job as best as possible.”
Stone came to Arkansas as an over-the-top thrower, but changed his delivery because of some shoulder soreness. He dropped down to a three-quarters delivery and it has been effective for the junior college transfer. Especially his slider.
“My slider is kind of like a Frisbee slider,” Stone said. “It gives the right-handers fits. It kind of spins out there like a Frisbee.”
Van Horn said catcher Jake Wise should be “available” for tonight’s game after missing the SEC Tournament because of a hand injury. But Van Horn did not indicate whether Wise would be starting in place of freshman Alex Gosser, who has been solid in the senior’s absence the past few games.
Van Horn also said outfielder Andrew Benintendi and third baseman Bobby Wernes are ready after missing SEC Tournament games with minor injuries. Both are expected to be in the starting lineup when the Razorbacks play tonight.
“There’s no excuses for us,” Van Horn said of his team’s health after several injuries. “Those guys should be ready to go to get through the weekend.”
The Razorbacks practiced at Virginia’s Davenport Field on Thursday in preparation for tonight’s game against Liberty. Van Horn said it reminded him of home.
“It’s a beautiful ballpark and the surface is great,” Van Horn said. “I’ve heard that it had a beautiful surface and played very true. It kind of reminds us of our ballpark, maybe more of a pitcher’s park. Who’s to say because Virginia’s numbers are incredible. I like the surface. We had a good workout. There was a little drizzle and the field was wet, but we’re just glad to be in a regional right now.”