NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe

State of the Hogs: Veteran Pitching Needs to Step Up

Arkansas needs veteran pitching to step up if NCAA streak is to stay alive. The Hogs lost a three-game sweep at Ole Miss over the weekend.

When Arkansas was picked to finish as high as third in the SEC West in preseason, it was about veteran pitching. So with those experienced arms struggling, it's no wonder that the Razorbacks are falling behind in the standings.

Dominic Taccolini, Keaton McKinney, Zach Jackson, James Teague and Cannon Chadwick were projected as the top pitchers for the baseball team.

Chadwick was superb in the summer and was among the best for the Hogs in the fall when those other four were on the shelf either because of injuries or heavy work. Chadwick has been out for most of the spring with a sore arm. The others seem to be healthy, but not effective.

Taccolini and McKinney started the season in the weekend rotation, but have been bumped to the bullpen as of last weekend. Neither was effective in Sunday relief stints as Ole Miss swept the Hogs in three games. Both are coming off summer surgery and were held out in the fall.

Jackson was the All-SEC closer last year with nine saves. He's started slowly and now has gone to the starting rotation with the failures of Taccolini and McKinney. He's not been able to hit his locations with his fast ball, with his velocity slipping a little from last year when it was sometimes 95-96 mph.

Teague was shut down for the summer after beating Missouri State in the clinching game of the Super Regional in May. He had a stress reaction in his elbow. He's supposed to be healthy now, but battled the flu in his comeback this spring. He was not effective in a start Friday night, his first of the season.

It's been frustrating for Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. His team is 4-8 in the SEC, one game better than last place Auburn and Tennessee. What's worse, the Hogs have already played Auburn and don't play Tennessee. It's tough sledding ahead with power house Florida coming to town Thursday.

Van Horn has said the same thing for the last month, the weekends are tough because the starting pitching rarely gets out of the first two innings without putting the Hogs deep behind. The Arkansas pitching staff has an overall ERA of 4.69, last in the SEC.

The frustration was clear with Van Horn after the Hogs lost 8-7 in the series finale at Ole Miss. He pointed to the 4-0 start the Hogs gave the Rebels, almost the same as they did in the first two games of the series.

“It’s all about being able to get the big out and get through some innings early," Van Horn said. "It’s the same thing we’ve been talking about for three-to-four weeks now and we have to get better production from our veteran pitchers.

"We have five returners that all had pretty good years last year and they’re struggling all at the same time. It all adds up to some bad innings that add up to some losses.”

Taccolini was 6-4 with a 4.32 ERA last year in 13 starts. He's 3-1 with a 5.31 ERA in seven starts this season. Most of his success this season came against weaker nonconference foes. He had surgery over the summer to remove a floating rib after a blood clot developed before the NCAA tournament in Stillwater. Taccolini's weapon is a hard sinking fast ball, but it's been consistently elevated this season.

McKinney was 6-2 with a 3.21 ERA in 18 starts last year. He's 1-1 with a 6.25 ERA this year in seven starts. He had surgery in June to repair a muscle tear in his hip. His fast ball velocity has slipped for a second straight year. He averages 86 after throwing in the low 90s in high school. He is wild out of the strike zone with his pitches, usually elevated.

Jackson is 2-3 with a 4.67 ERA. He was 5-1 with nine saves and a 2.10 ERA last year. Batters are hitting .260 against him this year. They hit .196 against him last year. He's pitched behind in the count and his fast ball is not usually a strike.

It's not just the pitching. The defense has a solid .978 fielding percentage, third in the SEC. But they may not be getting to as many plays as last year's outfield of Andrew Benintendi, Tyler Spoon and Joe Serrano. No one questions that Bobby Wernes was a magic man at third and Carson Shaddy struggles there, coming off Tommy John surgery.

The Hogs lead the SEC in home runs, but the good bulk of those came early in the year against weak opposition. There is some hitting in the lineup, but not enough to overcome the shaky starting pitching. The Hogs have been so far behind early that Van Horn seldom has options to bunt or play any sort of small ball with a hit and run. He's often been forced to play for the big inning.

So what does Van Horn do with this staff? He's switched things around, with Teague and Jackson starting over the weekend. He'll probably stick with that as the Gators come to town. First game is 8 p.m. Thursday night as part of the SEC's package with ESPN.

The Hogs have gone to the NCAA tournament the last 14 seasons, 13 with Van Horn at the helm. The constant has been good pitching with veteran assistant coach Dave Jorn always figuring it out. It may still happen, but the schedule maker isn't helping.

The Hogs play host to Louisiana-Monroe in North Little Rock on Tuesday. Game time is 6:30 p.m. After that, it's down right nasty as far as the opposition.

The rest of the SEC schedule has Florida (8-4), Kentucky (8-4), Texas A&M (7-5) and LSU (6-6), Alabama (6-6) and Mississippi State (8-4).

Van Horn's reputation is that he always figures it out. It's not smart to bet against him. But it's safe to say it doesn't look good right now.

The veteran coach keeps saying that he is keeping it positive with his team. That was what he did last year when they rebounded after a 15-15 start with a run to the College World Series. This team talked about making a run in postseason play when the season started.

Right now, they need to make a run just to make postseason. To do that, the starting pitching has to turn around.

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