State of the Hogs: Pitching

Baseball has always been about pitching. The team with the best players on the mound wins most of the time. That's even a bigger part of the college game because major league baseball pays big bucks for the best arms out of high school.

It doesn't help that college baseball allows aluminum bats. That's changed a bit in the last couple of years after the NCAA passed new restrictions on bat speed and forced manufacturer's to restrict the dimensions.

Still, good pitching will get good hitting out. It's the nature of the game.

Hence, pitching is the thing that will be the most important aspect of this weekend's first SEC series of the season at Baum Stadium when Mississippi State comes to town.

So pitching will be our subject, not whether or not Arkansas should be playing Arkansas State in football or men's basketball. (That was the subject at least one editor suggested should be in this space.)

Given the experience of its pitching staff, it is incredible that Arkansas enters the weekend as perhaps the SEC's most talked about team. The Hogs have soared as high as No. 5 in one national poll with an inexperienced pitching staff featuring junior Charley Boyce. What's even more incredible is that Boyce hasn't been close to the form that made him the most reliable starter the last two years.

Both Dave Van Horn, the Hogs' head coach, and Dave Jorn, his pitching coach, think Boyce may be close to regaining his form, but not so sure as to pencil him in as a starter for this weekend's three-game set with State. No, Boyce will start the weekend in the bullpen.

Boyce pitched one spectacular inning Wednesday in a runaway victory at Centenary. That came after he was knocked around in a big inning in the Hogs' lone loss last weekend at then No. 2 South Carolina. For a change, Boyce had it going, mowing down the Gents with his old out pitch, a nasty slider.

"Charley threw really well last night," Van Horn said Thursday when he met the media to go over plans for this weekend. "He had his slider working well."

Still, Boyce will be in the bullpen this weekend. Part of that has to do with reliever Darryl Maday's sore shoulder and the clouded status of closer Trey Holloway. The news on Holloway was good Thursday after he left in the middle of an at bat after feeling a twinge in his throwing elbow.

"We are glad we have someone like Charley who has some experience available for Friday and Saturday," Van Horn said. "If we don't use him the first two days, we could start him Sunday."

That isn't likely, according to Jorn. He had just informed Boyce of his status on Thursday afternoon when he said, "He's going to pitch on Friday if we need him. He asked me what that means for Sunday. I just told him he was not penciled in for Sunday."

That sounds a bit like the role Jay Sawatski filled for the Hogs last year. Sawatski pitched in relief of starters Clint Brannon and Boyce on either Friday or Saturday anytime the Hogs had a chance at a victory.

"Yeah, you like having a veteran to use in a role like that," Jorn said. "But that's not our long-term plans with Charley. We want him back as a starter if he can fill that role. That's just what we are looking at for this weekend.

"I think Charley is right on the verge of being back like he was the last couple of years. What I saw last night was good and I've told him that."

So what was different? Van Horn took a crack at it, but after sounding more like a psychologist than a coach, he begged this reporter to take the question to Jorn.

"I think Charley has just been a little stubborn," Jorn said, taking a softer approach than Van Horn. "I think Charley just got a little set in his ways and quit listening to us. I think sometimes you are looking, but you don't see. I think Charley was listening to us as coaches, but he wasn't hearing. I think he hears now.

"I like Charley a lot. It was just a case of him getting a little comfortable with what he was doing and not trying to get better. He forgot to keep trying to get better. He was a little too comfortable. You have to be open and receptive. I can tell he's a little more open now."

Going to the bullpen will do that for a starter.

"Charley was shaking us off," Van Horn said. "Basically, he was going with 80 to 90 percent fastballs. He wanted to call his own game and we finally let him. In that big inning at Carolina, he threw about 23 pitches to three batters and 75 percent were up in the zone. That's too many.

"With Charley, he needs to go right after hitters. He needs to get ahead so he can use that out pitch of his, the slider. He has been getting behind and then shaking off the slider. We just need him to go out there, be confident in himself and quit worrying about what we are going to call for him.

"I think he's close to being there. It's a long season and we need Charley. He's going to be fine."

Does that mean Boyce is going to fill Holloway's role as the closer on the weekend?

"We've got guys who can fill that role," Van Horn said. "We'll use Charley whenever we need him, maybe earlier than that.

"But if we need a closer, it might be Lee Land. He was throwing in the 90s in the inning he pitched at Oklahoma State. He had that role when he was at Wake Forest. Josh Smith was clocked at 92 to 96 (mph) the other night at Centenary. He was pretty impressive. It would be nice to just go out and score some runs.

"We'll study their hitters as we go through the weekend and make some decisions."

Doesn't sound like the Hogs want to give away all their secrets just yet. Here's betting Dave Van Horn has a plan and it will be a good one. I was listening VERY closely and I think I heard it all.

CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET

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