Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: Pitching Poised for Improved Start

Junior Zach Jackson is the ace of an improved pitching staff as Arkansas closes in on baseball season opener.

The cover boy last year for the Arkansas media guide – and for Hawgs Illustrated – was Trey Killian. Those decisions were made before Killian returned for the spring semester. However, it was clear early in the semester that he was lagging behind in arm conditioning.

Killian didn't pitch until the conference opener and was never really the man in the Arkansas rotation as projected. Perhaps battling doubts about a sore elbow that forced a summer shutdown while on the summer tour with Team USA, Killian just wasn't the man for the Hogs last spring.

There were other issues with the Arkansas pitching staff that led to a stumbling 15-15 start. Jacob Stone was not the closer as projected.

Killian followed a season when he pitched 94 innings with a 2.30 ERA with an up-and-down season for a 4.76 ERA.

Stone was 4-0 with an 0.91 ERA as a junior, then just 3-2 and 4.41 ERA as a senior. Stone had four saves as a junior, one as a senior when he pitched in five fewer games. By season's end, Stone only pitched in blowouts.

While Killian and Stone were struggling, the Hogs were not getting much out of highly regarded youngsters Cannon Chadwick, Jonah Patten, Kyle Pate and Parker Sanburn. Patten, Pate and Sanburn did not return, but Chadwick has turned the corner with a fine summer and appears to be a candidate to pitch important innings this spring.

It's clear who is the staff cover boy now as the Hogs close in on the Feb. 19 season opener with Central Michigan. It's closer Zach Jackson, junior from Berryhill, Okla. Jackson was the SEC's top closer last year with a 5-1 record and nine saves. A fireballer with three out pitches, Jackson had 89 strikeouts in 60 innings.

And, it's also clear that this is a much deeper staff with more strike throwers than last year. Freshmen Weston Rogers, Blaine Knight, Isiah Campbell, Jake Reindl, Barrett Loseke and Anthony Dahl have all been pleasant additions. And, there are also some nice transfers on the pitching staff, including Hunter Hart and Doug Willey. Rogers and Knight have been impressive and are candidates to crack the starting rotation, if not on the weekend, in midweek games.

There are now finally some viable options as far as lefty pitchers. Rogers is a talented lefty with three pitches. Other southpaw newcomers are Ty Harris, Kacey Murphy, Michael Brawner and Jordan Rodriguez. Kyle Pate, the only lefty on last year's roster to get any innings, has transferred to junior college after being passed by the newcomers in the fall.

Jackson opened the season with spotty command of his fast ball. He walked 38. He was prone to walk the bases loaded, then strikeout the side. He can throw his fast ball 95 mph, but has late break on a filthy curve and has a trusty changeup, too.

But the Hogs had to find a way to get the ball to Jackson with the game still on the line. That did not happen much in the first 30 games. It did once James Teague, Dominic Taccolini and Keaton McKinney hit their stride at the mid point of the season.

Teague was the opening day starter, but did not settle down until March. McKinney struggled early, but was masterful by the time SEC play began. He may have been the league's best Sunday starter down the stretch and a big reason the Hogs finished 17-12 in league play.

McKinney could slide to the front of the rotation this season. He battled a torn muscle in his hip down the stretch last season and missed three starts in postseason play before pitching in the College World Series. He had surgery in June and is now rounding into shape. He's been good in two bullpens and a scrimmage start in January.

“I feel like I'm getting close to 100 percent,” McKinney said. “I am much stronger in the upper body. I couldn't lift in the summer with my legs, so I concentrated on my upper body. It's helped me a lot.”

And, then he revealed something that explains a fall in velocity from high school to college.

“I just couldn't push off with my leg last year,” he said. “That hip just wasn't letting me do it.

“I think I'm better with my push now. I'm so much stronger there.”

And, here's the good news, McKinney is growing confident in two more pitches. He stuck with his fast ball and a nasty changeup last year. There was a try with a slider late in the year, but McKinney didn't trust it. He does not.

“I just had two pitches last year,” he said. “For a starter, that's not great. They have a 50-50 chance of getting it right. You see what happens with Jackson. He has three.

“I've gotten pretty much confident in the slider and the curve is better, too. You have three pitches or four, you can roll through the lineup a few times. You just have a better chance to keep them guessing.”

The changeup was effective even when that's all McKinney threw. It's a major league changeup. He has been throwing it with confidence since his sophomore year in high school.

“The key is that he can throw it on any count for a strike,” said Dave Jorn, pitching coach. “He can change speed with it, too. That's his out pitch.”

There has been some speculation that Jackson would become a starter this season. It's his goal. He may be a starter when he gets to pro ball.

That seemed to get nixed by head coach Dave Van Horn over the last two weeks. Van Horn started the fall saying they'd see about making Jackson a starter. As the fall ended, there was talk that Chadwick could fill that role and push Jackson to the front of the starting rotation.

That's not going to happen. Van Horn told the Swatter's Club luncheon that Jackson needs to be in the back end of the bullpen.

There is a chance that Jackson could close in midweek games, again on Friday night and Saturday night. If there had not been a lot of pitches thrown, perhaps he'd get a start on Sunday.

“That's the way we used Jay Sawatski my second year here and we went to the College World Series doing that,” Van Horn said.

Indeed, Sawatski twirled his hard slider in 31 games, seven as a starter. He posted a 10-3 record with seven saves. His ERA was 3.38, very good in an era with light, lively bats. He had 86 strikeouts in 94 innings.

McKinney wasn't sure of roles, but liked the way it worked last year with Jackson closing.

“You just went out there knowing that if you got five, six or seven innings, you had a win,” McKinney said. “You had Zach down there in the bullpen. No one was going to beat him. Maybe he starts for us, maybe he closes. I just know he'll be great either way.”

The staff trusts Jorn to get them in the right roles.

“That's what we know,” McKinney said. “You come here because you have complete trust in Coach Jorn. He makes you work and makes you better. He makes you a better person, a better player. He'll find out what you have inside and get it out of you.”

McKinney said the “life stories” Jorn tells are as good as those pertaining to baseball.

“He's told stuff to us about his career in hopes that we learn a few things,” McKinney said. “He tells us about his fishing trips and just everything that he's done. We do learn a lot about life from him.

“I think one of the things that stood out is how he got his start in pro ball. He said he wasn't really big enough, so he had to maximize all of his abilities to pitch. He worked for everything he got.”

Teague had elbow issues at the end of the season and didn't get to pitch in the College World Series. He had a stress reaction that bothered him in the final game of the Super Regional against Southwest Missouri. He had to come out after five innings.

“It was bothering me before that game, but I was going to pitch that game,” Teague said. “I just wasn't going to let our team down. I had to go out there.”

Teague said he never felt he was risking a bad injury.

“I would do it all the same again,” he said. “It did hurt to not get to pitch in Omaha. I'd be lying if I said that. But the goal was Omaha and I helped our team get there. I was still a part of it.

“I knew my coaches were taking care of me. I have total trust in them.

“The good news is that I got a lot of rest this summer and this fall. My legs feel fresh. I feel great.”

Teague appears to be headed to the bullpen, like Jackson.

“That's fine with me,” he said. “I could start if they want that, but I might be a little more effective in the bullpen. I really am not worried about it. The results will take care of it.

“I talk to the young guys about that. You don't know your role when the season starts. No one does. Just work. It takes care of itself. Your role may be totally different, really big, at the end of the season. You just don't know what's going to happen.

“The thing you have to do in baseball, is just continue to work. That's what Coach Jorn preaches. Don't get too low. Don't get too high. Your time will come. It did for me last year.”

It's easy to point to what happened last year as evidence. Killian and Stone were not the aces of the UA staff. This year it appears that it will be Jackson, McKinney, Taccolini and Teague.

But there are others to fill big roles. Josh Alberius, a converted infielder, could pitch key innings. There are thoughts that Willey, senior transfer from Franklin Pierce University, might turn into Jackson's setup man. There are plenty of lefties on the roster now and several will get innings early, perhaps led by Rogers. Pate was the only lefty on the roster last year and was not trusted for any key situations in the stretch run.

“He slings it,” Van Horn said of Willey. “He's tough on right handers. He was pitching last summer at Cape Cod and we kept hearing about him from Luke Bonfield. He said we have to take a look at him.”

Willey graduated at Franklin Pierce and wanted to try the SEC. He had four saves for Franklin Pierce last year.

“He's looked up to in our clubhouse,” Van Horn said. “Guys call him grandpa because he's the oldest guy in there.

“I like him a lot. I'd like to keep him around after this year as a coach. I'm still not sure about his role, but he got people out in the fall. He throws strikes and we like that.”

There's value in a strike thrower. The Hogs struggled with that out of the gate last year.

“I don't think we'll have that this year,” Teague said. “There are a lot of strike throwers on this staff.”

Jackson may be one of them now.

“I think I've gotten better with my command,” he said. “I think where I had trouble with the walks was early. I didn't walk many late in the year. I got better.”

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