Phillips Picks Up Slack

Lance Phillips has two big victories for the thin Arkansas pitching staff. A change in arm slots helped transform the senior hurler.

Most would probably guess that Zach Jackson leads the Arkansas baseball team in games pitched. The sophomore fire baller is the closer and maybe a future first-round draft pick.

Jackson's record is a perfect 5-0 with nine saves. He's first with 25 appearances and leads in ERA (1.91) and opponent's batting average (.185).

No one would guess in preseason – or maybe now – that Lance Phillips would rank second in game's pitched with 24.

Phillips, the senior from Nacogdoches, Texas, has more interesting notes. He's got two career victories, one of them on Sunday in the clinching victory over Missouri State in the super regional. The other came on March 31 in TD Ameritrades Park against Creighton, where the Hogs will play Virginia at 2 p.m. Saturday in the College World Series.

It's the kind of stuff Phillips can tell his grand kids. It's an unlikely story, even Phillips admits.

“I talked to my dad about it Sunday night,” Phillips said. “Look how far I've come. I was just a walk-on trying to make the team in the fall. I barely made the team last year and I didn't make the travel team.

“My dad reminded me that it's going to be an interesting few weeks for our family. My younger brother, Alex, pitched in the junior college world series last month for San Jacinto.”

Phillips hasn't posted big numbers, but he's picked up the slack as Arkansas has searched for innings from the bullpen as more and more front liners have gone down to injuries and highly regarded freshmen fell by the wayside.

He's only pitched 32 innings. But they are generally solid. He's good for a few outs, just as he was Sunday when he recorded four as the bridge between starter James Teague and Jackson, the closer with the electric stuff.

Phillips, 6-4 and 190, is far from electric. But he's different. Pitching coach Dave Jorn suggested a side-arm delivery just before the start of the 2014 season. He had a conventional delivery when he arrived from Bossier Parrish Community College.

“It was three weeks before our first game last year,” Phillips said. “Coach Jorn pulled me aside. He told me that there was one roster spot left and it was between me and a couple of other guys. He suggested changing my arm slot to from the side.”

Phillips had never toyed with it before. There was one other thing from Jorn. He wanted to put him in a scrimmage in three days.

“So I started to work on it,” Phillips said. “The worst part is that it made my back hurt. You have to bend over to throw in that slot. I threw for two hours the first day after he suggested it.”

Phillips made the roster, but only pitched in three games. He kept working on it and eventually figured out how to keep his pitches down and turned heads last fall as a cast of young pitchers struggled.

“Lance just kept getting better,” said Dave Van Horn, head coach. “He had a good fall. We had some freshmen who weren't mentally ready. Lance was about the last guy to make our roster, but he's improved all year.”

Phillips lost some velocity from his conventional delivery, but there was new movement from down under.

“There is natural movement to the arm side,” he said. “I may have touched 89 before. Now, I'm 84 to 87, but the movement is better when I don't try to throw hard.”

It's given him an out pitch, a fast ball on the black with a six-inch dip at the end. There's been 30 strikeouts against only 12 walks.

The situations have gotten increasingly bigger of late.

“I don't get nervous when I'm on the mound,” Phillips said. “It's just focusing on the execution of the pitch. I can handle that. But running from the bullpen to the mound is the tough part.”

Really?

“I am afraid I'm going to trip,” Phillips said. “So I'm careful coming in. It was something to see when I jogged in Sunday and the place was packed. It was awesome to see the place packed.”

Told that story, Jorn seemed to understand.

“He's not real athletic,” Jorn said. “But he's a special kid.

“Obviously, he's totally coachable. He was open to trying the new arm slot. We could see that when he dropped down, he got some movement. He just didn't feature a lot of decent stuff before. Now he does.

“He just persevered. He started at the bottom and worked his way up. He works his tail off and competes. He does not get rattled.”

There's little doubt Phillips will pitch in Omaha. He knows it will be a packed stadium, unlike the empty bleachers for the Creighton game in March.

“It's going to be something else, maybe 30,000,” Phillips said.

Phillips will try not to trip on the way to the mound.

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