Doug Willey knew things were going to be nice with the Arkansas baseball team. He knew it was going to be a blast.
Still, there was nothing that could have prepared Willey for the first month of the baseball season. There would be two weekends with almost 30,000 fans packing Baum Stadium, then a charter jet trip to Houston for a sweep of three ranked teams in the Houston Collegiate Classic at Minute Maid Park.
“It’s been unreal,” Willey said. “I never could have dreamed about anything like that.”
Willey has yet to allow an earned run in 10 relief appearances for the Razorbacks. He's been a solid late-game option for Dave Van Horn. He's got one save and allowed six hits in 8.1 innings. He's got nine strikeouts against two walks while allowing opponents to hit just .207.
The Hogs may need more of Willey late as they plunge deeper into the SEC season. They opened league play with three straight losses at South Carolina. After dipping to No. 18 in the coaches poll, they play host to Auburn in a three-game set this week. Game time Friday night is 6:30 p.m. for the opener.
It was 12 months ago that Willey was on a 16-hour bus trip as the save specialist for Division II Franklin Pierce at Rindge, N.H. Now, as a graduate transfer at Arkansas, Willey is a big part of the bullpen for one of the nation’s elite SEC programs.
“We had some long trips,” Willey said of his four years at Franklin Pierce. “It was a grind. Travel was tough.
“Then, I get here and it’s charter jet everywhere. We played Sunday afternoon in Houston and we were home in time for dinner. It’s a blast.”
Really, Willey knew it was going to be a blast and that was without making a recruiting trip to Arkansas after taking advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule to repeat his senior season. An injury shut him down after seven games last year.
Franklin Pierce is a Division II baseball power under veteran coach Jayson King. The Ravens have been a regular in the NCAA DII playoffs in King’s 18 seasons at the helm. They went 48-4 last year before losing in the East Regionals. They’ve been to the national semifinals three times.
Willey (6-2, 220) holds the Franklin Pierce record with 61 career pitching appearances, mostly in relief. He recorded 13 saves as a junior and 21 for his career. There were four last year before the injury.
When he didn’t finish last season and knew it would allow him to have a fifth season as a medical hardship, the wheels began to turn. He already had his degree in biology.
The plan was to go to the Cape Cod League and begin to look at transfer destinations. North Carolina State and Clemson seemed to have early interest.
“Luke Bonfield was on my team at Cape,” Willey said. “I told him what I was going to do and he said, ‘Why not come to Arkansas?’ I thought he was joking around. I thought, ‘That’s a big SEC school.’ It was an intimidating thought. But from there, it all happened pretty quick, in a few days. It was crazy.”
There was already a release from Franklin Pierce. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn called King.
“I knew him,” Van Horn said. “Highly respected coach. I wasn’t going to do anything without seeing what he thought. He told me, ‘He’s going to leave and I’d like nothing else than to have him play for someone like you.’
“It was clear he was a good player. Coach King said he wasn’t sure he’d be a closer in the SEC like he was for him in their league, but he thought he could pitch at this level.
“The other part, we were lucky that we had some money to be able to give him a scholarship. So it did work out really fast.”
Willey said Bonfield did most of the recruiting. They went online to watch program highlights. It didn’t take much for Willey to understand it was one of the nation’s top programs with fabulous facilities. Recruiting coordinator Tony Vitello closed the deal on the phone.
“I just didn’t have time to take a visit,” Willey said. “I looked at pictures and some video and said it looked good to me. Luke told me that I’d never been a part of anything like what they had at Arkansas. He said it was an incredible organization.”
Willey loaded up in the middle of August for the drive from his hometown, Shelburn, N.H. It was 26 hours to Fayetteville.
“I split it into three legs,” he said. “I drove seven hours to Luke’s house in New Jersey, spent the night. Then, I followed Luke. We drove 12 hours to Indianapolis, then seven to Fayettevlle.”
When he rolled into Fayetteville, it was unbelievable.
“I was just blown away, by Baum Stadium, the new indoor facility, the campus, everything,” he said. “Blown away.
“I don’t think I really had an idea even with looking at the video and the pictures. I just threw myself into the fire and came.
“Luke had told me about the fans, just diehard. He said I’d never been a part of anything like it.”
Of course, that was correct. Franklin Pierce, in the cold New England spring, often has fewer than 100 for games.
For the opener against Central Michigan, the Hogs drew 9,620. With his parents and his high school coach right behind the dugout, Willey pitched the final two outs. Willey struck out both batters. When catcher Tucker Pennell flipped the ball toward the mound on the final out, Willey charged it and scooped it up with zeal.
“I had to,” he said. “I took it to my dad. I usually gave him every save baseball since I’ve been in college. I think he’s got a few. This wasn’t a save, but it was my first appearance. I guess he’s got 20-something baseballs.”
Teammates celebrated around him like it was a save. It’s clear he’s well-liked.
“He fit in right away in our locker room,” Van Horn said. “He’s good with our team. I told him already that I’d like to have him as a coach when he’s done.”
Willey is fine with that and flattered, but would like a try at professional baseball.
“That’s my dream,” he said. “I have a degree in biology and I’m working on kinesiology now. The idea is that I’d like to be in physical therapy or strength and conditioning. But I’d like to see what I can do in pro ball.”
The pro scouts are probably not excited by his velocity, in the high 80s. But there is lots of movement from a low arm slot, almost sidearm. He’s got several pitches, including a wicked slider. He can spot his fast ball up and in with movement.
“Really, I’m throwing the same pitches I did at Franklin Pierce, but it’s all been refined,” Willey said of the help he’s gotten from UA pitching coach Dave Jorn.
“He’s helped me with location and command. I’m not a flame thrower like Zach Jackson. I just try to move it in and out. I like to be inside, but my slider is my best pitch. I work off of that.
“I don’t focus on big velocity and if I leave it up, I’m going to get hit.”
Willey’s approach fits perfectly with Jorn. Willey loves the work when Jorn puts a string across the bullpen.
“We have that string for every bullpen,” Willey said. “Coach Jorn is unbelievable. He’s a lot of fun to be around. You are going to keep it down with that string across our workouts. Really, all of our coaches are great. There is so much knowledge here.”
Willey piled in with Michael Bernal and Bonfield as roommates. In the early days, Willey was tagged with the “Grandpa” nickname. He’s 23. Now, it’s just Dougey.
“He was an immediate fit,” Bernal said. “He’s an older guy and has a real personality. I’m sure there were nerves when he first got here, but we didn’t see them.”
Van Horn said Willey’s scrimmage work in the fall was just OK, but it was clear there was a place for him in the bullpen. But he’s been much better in games.
“He just keeps getting better,” Van Horn said. “He’s been better than he was in scrimmages.”
Maybe that was the nerves last fall.
“I haven’t felt any pressure,” he said. “We have so much depth, so many pitchers. That takes the pressure off of me. If you have trouble, there is someone to pick you up.
“It’s just been a blast. It’s just hard to believe that I’m here. The fans pack it every weekend, we’ve played in a major league park. We jet around. It’s just been so much fun.
“I just consider it a privilege to be here.”