State of the Hogs: Thin Pitching

James Teague is out with "a stress reaction" in his pitching elbow, but Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn knows Hogs will close ranks and find a way to compete.

Dave Van Horn wanted to keep rolling for a few more days with the good vibes of another trip to Omaha. But, there was the inevitable question Tuesday, how would the Arkansas coach handle a pitching staff that just keeps getting thinner?

"Don't be so negative," a smiling Van Horn told a reporter who wondered what the pitching would look like at the College World Series with more bad news. Sophomore pitcher James Teague is out with a stress reaction in his elbow.

"I mean, it hasn't slowed us down, so whatever. We'll just go do what we've got to do. We'll figure it out when we're there. We are thinner than we've been in a long time on the mound with the experience going into the year, and now we've had some injuries with some guys with experience. So we're a little bit thinner. We'll take it one game at a time and just do whatever we had to do to win that game."

Pitching coach Dave Jorn is tasked with figuring it out. He said there was at least some good news. Keaton McKinney was feeling better after getting a cortisone injection in a sore hip on Monday.

The Hogs play the opening game in the CWS at 2 p.m. Saturday against Virginia at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. It's at least clear what Jorn would prefer to do in the opener as far as pitching. Trey Killian will start and Zach Jackson will close. Jorn isn't so sure about anything else.

And, they don't sound worried. It's just like star Andrew Benintendi said when faced with a running start at the celebration dog pile on Sunday, the Hogs are jumping in with no fear. Rick Nomura even said if it makes the Hogs an underdog, that's a fun role.

"We are pretty short," said Jorn, the veteran with 19 years as the UA mound boss with first Norm DeBriyn and the last 13 with Van Horn.

The Hogs were already without Dominic Taccolini since an injury in the SEC tournament. Teague pitched twice in the Super Regional this past weekend, starting the Sunday. But his elbow was bothering him for most of the four innings he pitched in the finale.

"We wish we had Taccolini and Teague, but we'll just see who can step up," Jorn said. "We have some guys who haven't been pitching. Maybe one of those like Jacob Stone, Kyle Pate, Cannon Chadwick or Parker Sanburn get some innings. I don't know."

There hasn't been the trust factor with any of those of late. Aside from Jackson, the bullpen favorites of late for Van Horn and Jorn have been Jackson Lowery, Lance Phillips and Josh Alberius.

McKinney was the Sunday ace for much of the season. The freshman won six games to help the Hogs win SEC series before sustaining a hip injury in the regular-season finale at Georgia. He's had trouble throwing strikes since. He didn't make it through two innings in a loss Saturday against Missouri State.

"He hurt that right hip and when he pushes off, he's felt some pain," Jorn said. "He's not been as good since then. But the cortisone should help and we might even use him (in relief) in the first game. That could put Jackson Lowery as the starter in the second game. But you never know, we will do what we can to win the first game."

Van Horn was asked when he knew Teague was out.

"Pretty much yesterday," he said. "Kind of knew just from the way it was bothering him. Where it was at, what it could be. At least it's not a stress fracture. It's just a reaction. That just means rest. He needs time. It could have turned into something severe, but he'll be all right in a month or two."

Van Horn still sounded up beat about the Hogs' chances in Omaha. Why?

"Because we're there," Van Horn said. "That's the main reason we've got a shot. We go up there and anything can happen. Obviously the key is to win games and stay in the winner's bracket and you have more days off."

It was a strange visit with players and coaches after practice Tuesday. It's the last time the media will see them before the trip to Omaha. Some were still reliving the dog pile on Sunday after clinching the Omaha trip. They know what awaits in Omaha, too. Virginia eliminated the Hogs last year in Charlottesville, Va.

Interestingly, Jackson was the starting pitcher. It's the last time he has been beaten. He's 5-0 with nine saves. His ERA is 1.91 and the opposition has hit just .185 against the sophomore from Berryhill, Okla.

Jackson reminded a reporter about the Virginia game in preseason, saying it's always going to be in the back of his mind. He said he owes the team something for that walk-filled performance.

"It's still there," Jackson said Tuesday. "It doesn't go away. There's part of me that is glad that the coaches showed enough confidence to start me in that situation."

Jackson has been among the nation's hottest pitchers in the last six weeks. Van Horn said that coincides with the news that Team USA had picked him for their summer tour, as the staff's closer. It's meant added confidence for Jackson.

"I think it has," Jackson said. "I remember the same thing happened last spring when Trey Killian got the news. I know that helped his confidence down the stretch. It's a confidence boost."

But Jackson has been pretty good all season. He's recorded 87 strikeouts in 56 innings. There's still been 37 walks, but even that's been better of late. He points to the new baseballs for the 2015 season. They go further because of lower seams with reduced drag in the air. But pitchers like them, too.

"My breaker has been better this year," Jackson said. "I think the lower seams make it easier for me to spin and it's helped me. I've got better feel with them."

Aaron Fitt of said Monday that Jackson might be the number one overall draft pick next year. Jackson didn't want any part of that discussion.

"I didn't know he said that," Jackson said. "That's crazy. Right now, I'm just worried about getting some wins in Omaha, just try to win games. (The 2016 draft) is a long ways away."

Jackson did attend the draft watch party Monday night for Andrew Benintendi, the seventh overall pick by the Boston Red Sox.

"That was just great," Jackson said. "I was there with his family, his advisor. To see that was a pretty cool environment."

There's been lots of cool stuff in the last few days. Jackson won't ever forget the dog pile on Sunday after he tossed the final pitch of the Super Regional.

"It was a black out moment," he said. "It's an incredible feeling, just pure excitement."

Obviously, Jackson was at the center -- and bottom -- of the dog pile. Did he worry about an injury?

"There was no fear," he said. "You embrace the moment. It was great."

Some of the smaller Razorbacks were more careful. Second baseman Rick Nomura tried to stay atop the dog pile. Benintendi admitted that the long run from center field gave him time to come up with a cautious plan.

"You jump on top and stay out of the bottom," Benintendi said. "You get in the bottom, you get squished.

"My summer league team won the Connie Mack World Series. We had a dog pile. I kinda ended up on top of that one, too."

Tyler Spoon said he was running alongside Benintendi with thoughts of the draft coming the next day.

"I started to just grab him," Spoon said. "I thought I'd keep him out of the dog pile and keep him from getting hurt. But he beat me and we both jumped on top. It was as excited as you are going to be. Great emotion."

There was more emotion later when Van Horn spoke to the team in the outfield about a text from Spoon as the Hogs were headed to the 2012 CWS. Spoon had redshirted and already gone to Alaska to play summer baseball.

"DVH had his sun glasses on," Nomura said. "But his voice was cracking. I know he teared up. You don't see him like that very much, but he does get emotional. You know what he feels for his players. That's why it's so great to play for him."

That's one of the reasons why he dumped his original plan. The Hawaii product was going to return to his home state school after two years of junior college. His father coached for Hawaii in the 1980 College World Series.

"I had a connection with the coaches here," Nomura said. "Coach Van Horn, I love. And, there was an immediate relationship with Coach (Tony) Vitello. I loved his emotion. The first time I talked to him on the phone, I think I called him dude."

Vitello said, "No doubt, he did do that. He's just got some great personality. Coach Van Horn and I had talked about that and it was one of the reasons we wanted him, to get some personality on this team. He's really up beat."

That's what Dave Van Horn was thinking Tuesday when there was more bad news about a thin pitching staff. The Hogs want to focus more on the dog pile against Missouri State than the shrinking numbers on the mound.

"We'll just keep dong what we have been doing," Jorn said. "We'll figure out a way to win the game. Our kids have stepped up all year. They have courage, they've been brave and they have competed their butts off.

"People tend to try to put pressure on themselves, but what you have to do is just focus on the process and they've been good at that. We've got some guys we trust to keep competing."

Nomura said, "Maybe this makes us the underdogs. That's great, no pressure. It's a fun role. Let's go!"

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