As a rule, Dave Van Horn baseball teams don't give up much on the base paths. Some might point to a nice run of strong throwing catchers like Brian Walker, James McCann and Jake Wise at holding down steals.
Tucker Pennell, the senior starter for the 2016 Razorbacks, was advertised as a strong, accurate thrower last year as the new man on the block after tranferring to the Ozarks from the junior college ranks. He does have a gun.
But something different happened to the Razorbacks in the College World Series. Virginia and then Miami ran on Pennell in Omaha. It was something that Van Horn said was not Pennell's fault, although the senior catcher disagreed Saturday morning at media day.
It was a big part of a quick exit for the Razorbacks at Omaha. Virginia won the opener, 5-3. Miami beat the Hogs, 4-3. Giving up stolen bases was a big part of both games. And, it was a big talking point for coaches with players during their summer exits the next week in Fayetteville.
“It wasn't on Tucker, but on our pitchers,” Van Horn said. “When we had our exit meeting with our (pitching) staff in June, that was something we said had to get fixed. We were slow to the plate in Omaha with quite a few guys. We told them to get that fixed over the summer.”
The Hogs open the regular season Friday when Central Michigan visits Baum Stadium for a three-game series. First pitch for the opener is 3:05 p.m. Van Horn thinks all of his pitchers will be quicker to the plate.
Dave Jorn, the veteran pitching coach, promised as much. He reminded that holding runners and being quick to the plate is part of his five rules to pitching.
“I know Coach Jorn was red faced over what happened in Omaha,” Van Horn said. “He didn't like it one bit. We have not had that problem in the past. We've had good catchers and we held runners on. We have not been slow to the plate, but it got away from us in Omaha.”
Jorn said there are stop watches all around the dugout and bullpen as they practice and scrimmage. It's the same for games. The length of time it takes to get the ball from the stretch to the plate is a constant point of emphasis.
“We've always emphasized that,” he said. “Maybe we got a little slow at Omaha. And we had two teams trying to find ways to score runs in a big park. It's tough to score there and so that's what our opponents tried to do. Virginia and Miami did run on us.”
Indeed, Virginia stole five bases, Miami three. There were five caught stealing in the two games. But there were critical runs scored in the two tight games that came back to haunt the Hogs.
They ran on Zach Jackson, the Hogs' ace closer. He entered in a tied game in the eighth against Virginia, the eventual national champ. Daniel Pinero bounced a Trey Killian offering through the right side for a one-out single. Pienero stole second on Jackson 's first pitch, then third on the next. Kenny Towns doubled him home. Virginia added an insurance run in the 5-3 victory when a pinch runner stole second against Jackson.
“That was frustrating,” Van Horn said. “You have to be 1.3 seconds to the plate or lower. We weren't. I think we are better now.”
Pennell took exception to giving up the steals.
“Anytime someone is running on us, I got to stop them,” he said. “I threw out a few and my throws were wide on some others. It was on me at Omaha. I take responsibility. I had a couple of bad throws. I give Coach Jorn a lot of credit. He's good in this area and we work hard. He's uncanny on his ability to call a pickoff move or a pitch out.”
Jackson didn't want his catcher to take the blame. He pointed at himself.
“I was slow,” he said. “We covered that in my exit meeting after the trip to Omaha. I had to correct some things. I was slow out of the stretch with a high leg kick. Virginia saw that. They stole on my first two pitches. I have to be quicker and I have been this year.
“From the stretch, my leg kick is not as high now. I needed to get quicker. I'm in that 1.3 range now, but I was slower than that. You'd like to maybe get to 1.2. I still have a little bit of a kick in the stretch. I didn't go totally to a slide step. But I'm quicker.
“Coach Jorn gets fired up about that. He's big on getting that time down. I worked hard on it in the offseason.”
Jorn didn't get red faced when asked, but it was clear that holding runners close is a big part of what he coaches.
“This is more than you asked about, but I think going through it all shows how important it is to me,” Jorn said. “My five points to pitching: Locate the fast ball to both sides of the plate, locate the soft stuff, hold runners on with a good mix and be 1.3 to the plate or lower, mix your looks to second base, field your position and don't beat yourself.”
It sounded like more than five, but perhaps some of those were combinations to one major point. No matter, helping your catcher control the running game is important.
“You have to be quick to the plate and have a good move,” Jorn said. “We've done pretty well at picking runners off. We'll pitch out.
“I think you see sometimes that guys struggle out of the stretch and aren't quick enough to the plate. We work to clock that and fix it. It's always a part of what we do on a daily basis. Being under 1.3 is a big point of emphasis.
“We have worked hard on that and we will continue to stress it. Like I say, baseball is a marathon. You do it daily. You keep doing it. We've got a long way to go to get where we want to be and we know that. But I think we are quicker to the plate.”
It's something to watch as the Hogs open the season. No doubt, others saw what Virginia and Miami did to the Hogs in Omaha. They'll test the Hogs on the base paths. Here's a little speculation ahead of the opener: Dave Jorn got those issues fixed over the last eight months.