CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn’s 2014 team reached an NCAA Regional behind the strength of its starting pitching.
Trey Killian, Jalen Beeks and Chris Oliver were constants for a staff that had little experience and an offense that struggled with consistency throughout the lineup.
So, naturally, Arkansas’ starting pitching was going to be pivotal to its success in the Charlottesville Regional. But the Razorbacks (40-25) were eliminated after suffering through one of its worst weeks, collectively, for the starting pitchers.
Arkansas got only 16 innings from four starters — Oliver, Killian, Beeks and Zach Jackson — during its 2-2 performance in Virginia. It included an unexpected surprise from Beeks, who returned from a month-long absence because of an elbow injury to throw five scoreless innings against Bucknell. But the rest of the group didn’t last as long as the Razorbacks had hoped during rocky stints.
“They just didn’t have their best stuff,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.
The struggles came after Arkansas’ decision to alter its rotation for the regional, sliding Oliver into the start against Liberty. Killian would be next and, after the 3-2 win against Liberty, got the matchup the Razorbacks wanted against Virginia.
But both suffered with command issues last week. Van Horn said Oliver was simply “wild” in walking six, hitting two more and allowing two runs in five innings. But Oliver (9-4) grinded his way through five innings, which helped the Razorbacks win.
Killian wasn’t as fortunate. The sophomore didn’t have the pinpoint precision he had displayed most of the season and the Cavaliers made him pay, scoring three runs through three innings. Killian (4-9) left the mound after just 3 1/3 innings because of a blister, turning in his shortest stint since his season debut on March 1.
“I just wasn’t myself,” Killian said. “I couldn’t hit my spots.”
Van Horn said he was certain changing the rotation remained the best decision.
“Our thinking was if we could get through the first game with Oliver going against a team that swings, Liberty swings,” Van Horn said. “We felt like with Killian, if we faced Virginia with Killian we’d have a chance to get them because he throws nothing but strikes and they take a lot of pitches. And they work the counts.
“I think it was the right move. It just didn’t happen.”
Beeks (6-4) gave Arkansas hope with his gutsy effort in the 10-0 win against Bucknell, throwing 77 pitches in five innings even though the Razorbacks had projected just three innings and 50 pitches before the regional.
But then the same struggles returned. This time it was Jackson (2-3), who made his second start after being one of Arkansas’ most valuable relievers all season.
The freshman cruised through his first two innings, retiring the side in order with three strikeouts. But it all unraveled in the third, which led to six Virginia runs.
The right-hander didn’t make it out of the inning. Jackson allowed six runs on three hits, walked two and hit one batter in 2 2/3 innings during the 9-2 loss.
“He seemed a little bit flustered,” Van Horn said. “He just didn’t seem like himself. He was really wild up. You just think about the third inning: lead off base hit or whatever and they’re trying to bunt and he hits the guy. It all started from there.”
In the end, Arkansas’ four starters allowed 11 runs in the 16 innings. The Razorbacks bullpen threw more during the week, allowing 3 runs in 18 innings.
But the rough regional wouldn’t overshadow what the starting trio of Killian, Oliver and Beeks meant to the Razorbacks in 2014. The three were the clear leaders of a staff that entered the season with question marks after losing veterans like Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin, Randall Fant, Colby Suggs and Brandon Moore to pro baseball.
Arkansas finished with a 2.63 ERA in 2014, which ranks second in school history behind the 1.89 from the 2013 staff. The Razorbacks also pitched 10 shutouts, which is tied for second on the school’s single-season chart.
There’s promise for 2015, too, with Killian and Jackson returning to lead a staff with more experience next season. Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said the Razorbacks had a tremendous staff entering the regional and highlighted the potential in Jackson despite his struggles in the third inning Sunday night.
“That guy is going to be really, really good,” O’Connor said. “Watch the draft in two years. In my opinion, that guy is a lock to be a first-round pick. He has great stuff.”
But Virginia moved on because of the performances from its three starting pitchers. Nathan Kirby, Artie Lewicki and Brandon Waddell combined to allow two runs — off KJ Wilkerson’s 2-run home run Sunday — in 21 2/3 innings in the regional.
Arkansas believed it had a rotation capable of matching the Cavaliers after a successful season. But Van Horn and the Razorbacks will try again next season with Killian, Jackson, Dominic Taccolini and James Teague scheduled to return.
“I think just that experience is really going to help us for next year,” Van Horn said.