State of the Hogs: Pitching Comes Through

Arkansas had enough pitching to get to closer Zach Jackson. The Hogs rode the big righthander to Omaha in a 3-2 victory over Missouri State on Sunday at Baum Stadium.

Zach Jackson performed like a big leaguer, just what Missouri State coach Keith Guttin called the Arkansas closer.

But it was Lance Phillips that provided the bridge from starter James Teague to set up Jackson's late-game dominance.

Yes, it was the same Lance Phillips that Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn called the last man to make the roster in the fall. Phillips faced seven batters in the middle of the game to earn his second career victory to send the Razorbacks to the College World Series in Omaha.

Guess where Phillips recorded his only other victory in his two seasons at Arkansas? You got it, it was May 12 when he pitched one inning as the Hogs powered past Creighton in TD Ameritrade Park – in Omaha.

The Hogs pounced on Missouri State freshman Jordan Knutson for three runs in the top of the first. Pitching coach Dave Jorn's thin staff made it stand up with James Teague fighting through four innings, then Phillips getting the game to the magnificent Jackson, the sophomore with the three best pitches on the staff.

Jackson struck out six of the 12 batters he faced to earn the save, his ninth. No one has touched the Berryhill, Okla., product since about the time Van Horn told him Team USA had tabbed him to close on its summer tour.

The Hogs have struggled to find enough pitchers all season. With potential starter Dominic Taccolini out with a bad shoulder, they were even thinner over the last two weekends. Teague even pitched an inning Friday and was having trouble with his elbow on Sunday.

“He wasn't 100 percent,” said Jorn, for 19 seasons the UA pitching coach. “He couldn't straighten out his elbow today. I didn't know how long he could go.”

Missouri State was on him early, but couldn't get the key hit. The Bears stranded seven in the first three innings when they stroked five hits. They may not have scored at all on Teague, except for a rare error by Bobby Wernes to set up an unearned run in the third.

Still, Jorn was ready to send Van Horn to get him early. He knew things were not right in the second inning.

“I told him we were going to take him out, but just give us a little time to get someone ready,” Jorn said. “I knew he was hurting. But he said, 'I'm good. I got it.'

“Then, he struck out the guy to end the third and he got them 1-2-3 in the fourth. But I knew that was about all he had.”

Van Horn didn't want to go with Jackson for five innings. He's prone to throw a lot of pitches and the idea was to somehow get to the sixth or seventh.

“We wanted Lance to just get us a few outs,” Van Horn said. “He did. He really did great. They got a bloop hit in the sixth and then the walk. I decided not to wait for the seventh.”

Jackson gave up an RBI single to let in one of the inherited runners. But it was lights out the rest of the way. He retired the final 11 Bears. They didn't make solid contact in the last three innings.

“He’s a big leaguer,” said Guttin, the fiesty MSU coach. “He has a breaking ball that very few people on earth can hit.”

Combine that with a fast ball that is clocked from 93 to 95 mph and a great change-up, Jackson does have big league stuff. Teammates say those three pitches are the best three on the staff.

“He had it all working,” Jorn said. “I probably called more fast balls today because that was for strikes. But at the end with (Tate) Matheny, it was the curve ball. We weren't going to give him anything else.”

Van Horn said the pitching staff has been a work in progress all season. Phillips probably wasn't in the original roster plans in the fall with some fire balling youngsters rolling on to campus. Jorn changed his arm slot last season when he was ineffective. With a new side arm delivery, he started to get outs late in fall camp.

“He just kept getting better and better,” Van Horn said. “He showed us a knack of getting two, three guys out. We were just so thin on arms and we had some freshmen who were not ready mentally. Lance was just more mature. He was a guy we could run out there and get a couple of guys.

“But I will say that he's about the last guy to make the roster in the fall. But he's had a good year.”

Hitting coach Tony Vitello applauded Jorn and the pitchers for getting it done and said it shouldn't surprise that the three who pitched Sunday are perhaps the hardest workers.

“I got here last year and I spent a lot of long hours in my office, just getting organized,” he said. “I go back to when I got here and I'd think I was the last guy in this place and I'd leave and it would be James, Zach and Lance in our indoor area, or out there in the outfield running or throwing. They were the last three a lot.

“I remember some last year that Lance didn't always travel. But he'd be working and working to try to get better. He never quit working. It was non-stop and to see him today, that makes you feel good.”

Teague was beaming and promised he'd be fine by the time he pitched again in Omaha.

“You go out there a lot of the times and you aren't perfect and you pitch and today was no different,” he said. “You get in front of this crowd and you are pumped. You just know you have to be the bridge to the back end with Zach.

“We don't have a lot of arms and this year was definitely a struggle at some points. People thought we were nothing. We were walking in guys. But we kept working and started gaining some confidence and growing up.

“Today, I definitely did not have good stuff. My fast ball was up and they hit it. I just knew I had to give us a few innings, though. If we can get it to Zach, we know what we've got.”

Outfielder Tyler Spoon said it was the same as usual, with Jackson. He said when the bullpen call goes for Jackson, the three outfielders converge in center field for a conversation.

“Me and Andrew (Benintendi) say, 'It's over,' because there's not many going to get a hit off Zach,” Spoon said. “Our pitchers have been incredible.”

The Hogs have been more of an offensive club this year, but Vitello said that's mainly because of the way the scholarship money worked out for 2015.

“We've got a lot of scholarships in offense, but it will balance out in the future,” Vitello said. “What you see is that Coach Jorn got a little bit from each one of our pitchers. It took a little while for his master plan to work out, but he did it.”

Jorn said the work ethic was always there from the thin staff.

“And we were thin,” he said. “Without Taccolini, we just were even thinner. Not a lot of bullets. But Jackson gave us everything he had and he's a diehard Razorback. He is pretty good when he steps out there.

“It's a great group, though. They are close and they grind. The real positive is that they have a ton of the intangibles.”

Van Horn talked of Jackson's fire.

“Obviously, he's talented,” Van Horn said. “But he's a great person, too. His parents did a great job. You wouldn't want to meet a nicer person. But when he steps between those lines, he changes. I wouldn't want to face him.”

Jorn thought Jackson could be a starter coming into the fall. But there were issues with control in the fall and again after the holidays. He threw too many pitches to last long and there were times even as a reliever when Jorn wondered if he would make it out of his first inning. No one hit him, but he might walk the bases loaded several times in a game.

“Yeah, we thought he'd start,” Jorn said. “But you need the starter to fill up the zone and get you some innings. He wasn't doing that.”

And, it didn't help that Trey Killian was on the mend to open the season. He missed the first three weeks trying to get his arm into shape after sitting out with tendinitis in his elbow. It was Killian who helped plot a Van Horn ice bath after the game.

“Clark Eagan and Andrew Benintendi got the bucket,” Killian said. “My job was to go hug Coach Van Horn and hold him there for a little bit. He was trying to get away, but I just kept hugging him. It was great.

“This is so much fun. This is the closest team I've played on, a real family. It wasn't always going great, but we stayed together and you see how it's turned out.

“It's incredible what we've done since the middle of March. We were 12-13. We just kept grinding. We went to Omaha last month and said we'd be back or something like that.”

The coaches tried to downplay some of that on the Omaha trip.

“The guys were really excited to get up there when we played Creighton,” Vitello said. “They were fired up and taking a lot of pictures of the park and talking about going back. Coach Van Horn told them to calm down, but maybe going to Creighton had something to do with what we've done.

“This is pretty exciting. The dog pile was amazing. Guys were cheering, then crying, hugging, then cheering and hugging some more.”

Van Horn showed some rare emotion in the post-game interviews. He talked about the 2012 team with all of the pitching talent but without much offensive punch. Midway during the season, there was talk about pulling Spoon's redshirt.

“I brought him into my offense to talk about it,” Van Horn said. “I talked to him a little bit and I just decided not to do it and sent him out of my office. I was going to play him, but his look talked me out of it.”

So when school ended, the redshirts went to their summer assignments, Spoon to a league in Alaska.

“So we win at Baylor and I get this text from Tyler,” said Van Horn, his voice cracking. “It says, 'Congrats, good luck in Omaha, wish I was there.' It tore me up. I'm extremely proud to get him to Omaha.”

Van Horn said it really hasn't hit him what another trip to Omaha means. It's his sixth, fourth with the Hogs. He said you never know when you've made your last.

“It's an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “It will probably hit me when I have to start answering 100 texts tonight.

“It's tough to go. I feel fortunate and happy.”

It's really tough when your team sits 12-13 in March.

The Hogs celebrate with a dog pile.

Zach Jackson jumps for joy after the final strike.

James Teague gave the Hogs four innings to open the game.

Andrew Benintendi and the Hogs did a victory lap to the delight of Baum Stadium fans.

The Razorbacks celebrate after the clinching victory.

Zach Jackson celebrates with teammates.

Attendance was 11,694 on Sunday and 35,730 for the three-game series.

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