State of the Hogs: Good Vibes

Dean Martin sang it best ... a lonesome face without a name ... going back to Houston.

This Arkansas baseball team is too young to know any Dean Martin songs. It's unlikely they even know of the crooner.

But Martin's song Houston fits the Hogs well. They were probably a little lonesome when they returned with only one run in two losses at the SEC tournament to await their NCAA tournament fate.

They got uplifting news when they were assigned to the Houston regional, hosted by Rice. Why?

There are good vibes about Houston. It has nothing to do with Sam Houston State, the first-round foe at 1 p.m. Friday. The Hogs came back from Houston in early March with a good feeling about their potential, beating Texas Tech and Texas with a loss to Houston.

The Hogs climbed as high as No. 3 before the brutal SEC schedule began to take a toll on its rankings. But there were plenty who thought the Hogs might make a run to Omaha after a 22-3 start that included 5-1 in the SEC.

The high hopes centered around a pitching staff that included DJ Baxendale, Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin, Brandon Moore, Cade Lynch, Nolan Sanburn, Randall Fant, Colby Suggs, Trent Daniel and Ty Wright.

Astin was to be the bullpen anchor. No one touched him early, but he wasn't as effective once SEC play started. Still, he recorded nine saves while leading the team with 28 appearances and posting a solid 2.31 ERA.

The sophomore from Forrest City is still one of the top arms on a staff full of standouts. He throws his fast ball from 90-94 mph, and has several good off-speed pitches including a hard overhand breaker.

It stands to reason that Astin will get two chances in the Houston regional, just as he did in the victories over Texas Tech and Texas.

Astin has worked two solid bullpen sessions in the 10 days since the SEC tournament. Pitching coach Dave Jorn said it's a case of refining some mechanics that have slipped during the season with several pitchers, including bullpen stalwarts like Astin.

"I feel good," Jorn said. "You don't want to take an early departure out of the SEC Tournament, but I think it's done us some good.

"We were able to have a full week right here of really being able to concentrate and work on some fundamental stuff. Some of the stuff that you really don't have time to do when you're playing games, particularly with your bullpen.

"Your starters, they know when they're going to pitch, there's a structed schedule for them to throw bullpens and try to stay sharp. But your relievers, not knowing when they're going to throw, it's hard .. You've got to give their arms some time from the weekend pitching and the midweek pitching.

"So that has been good for the bullpen guys, to be able to spend a little bit of time with me to really try to sort out some of their deliveries and get them back on track.

Jorn said there were a couple of things that needed to be fixed. Mostly, it was a case of his body getting ahead of his arm and affecting the sharpness of his location.

"He's just got to get his delivery back, and his control," Jorn said. "His delivery got a little bit away from him, he got a little bit out front with his body. His arm was dragging and he wasn't able to find that release point that was allowing him to make those quality pitches.

"That's basically what I was saying earlier, when you've got guys that throw in relief, and they've got to throw Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday or Wednesday sometimes when you've got midweek games, they've got to have some down time.

"Because these guys are all being recycled in all those games. It's not that they get that fatigued, but you don't have the time to work on (their mechanics) in between pitching in games. You've got to rest, so you can't go out there and work in the bullpen and try and make some adjustments and fix some things like you can with the starters.

"You've got to be able to stay in touch with your body and really know how to repeat your delivery. But once it gets away from you, it's kind of hard to get it back. So this past week we've been able to work on some of those things that we haven't been able to do because of the games."

But more than anything else, it was a mental edge, some confidence. Head coach Dave Van Horn said Astin would jump ahead of hitters only to nibble and work full counts over and over.

"It's a confidence thing," Van Horn said. "You can't nibble. You have to go after hitters. He's got good enough stuff."

Astin agreed with both coaches just before the Hogs hit the road.

"I was trying to strike guys out, get swing and misses," Astin said. "I have to go after guys, pitch to contact more. If I do that, I think I'll be fine.

"That's what we worked on, getting back to pitching to contact and let the defense work."

Astin said it's tough to swallow an 0-2 SEC trip, but there is a positive.

"I do," Astin said. "I think that was a blessing in disguise, getting out of hoover. We got back here as a team and had a day off and we've been practicing ever since.

"I think we've come closer as a team with school being out and us being back here in Fayetteville practicing every day and working on everything we do every day.

"We've been here for almost a week now. The relievers have had two bullpen sessions now. We all got to work on stuff. Nolan Sanburn looks great right now. Colby Suggs looks good. I think we all look good right now."

What about going back to Houston?

"I think when it came up on the screen, we all felt good because we did play well there in two of those games," Astin said. "I think the competition got tougher in the SEC. That's what happened to us more than anything. But we thought that was a good place to go for us.

"We spent some time here getting some things done. There was no school, just practice. That was good for us."

Maybe it was even a little bit of a lonesome feeling like in that Dean Martin song. The Hogs are ready to get back to Houston.

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