Tough Act To Follow

HOOVER, Ala. -- If good pitching is truly contagious, as they sometimes say, then Duke Welker is about to throw the game of his life.

After watching Arkansas' Nick Schmidt and Jess Todd put together the best back-to-back performances by a pair of pitchers anyone around these parts could remember, the question now is whether or not Welker can make it three gems in a row.

"I hope so," Welker said. "I mean shoot, tough acts to follow. But I just need to do what I've been taught to do and go about my business the same way. Just make pitches and hopefully get some success out of it and get a win."

Lately, going about his business and picking up wins in the process has been easier said then done for Welker. After looking like one of the Razorbacks' top starters through the first two and half months of the season, the long and tall, 6-foot-7 junior righthander has gone cold since.

In his last four starts -- dating back to April 28 at Auburn -- Welker is 0-3 with an ugly 7.71 earned run average. And in just one of those four starts, Welker managed to pitch past the fifth inning.

But as Arkansas prepares for its Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal showdown with South Carolina at 10 a.m. today, Welker is hoping some of Schmidt and Todd's recent brilliance rubs off on him.

"It motivates me a little bit, knowing how successful they were and knowing how successful I can be with them," Welker said. "So yeah, it's motivating."

After his last start -- a 5-0 loss against Ole Miss on May 19 in a game Welker lasted just five innings -- Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn flirted with the idea of removing the Seminole State Junior College transfer from the rotation. But following a good, long talk and a solid week of practice, Welker remained in the No. 3 slot in the pitching order.

Now, Welker is out to prove he still belongs there.

"I think there's a little competition among the teammates and it makes for a good situation," Van Horn said. "I think he'll come out and pitch well and if we come out and hit well and play good defense, we'll have a great chance to win."

While Welker is focused on pitching the 15th-ranked Razorbacks into the tournament finals, he also will be dealing with a serious off-the-field personal situation as well. Thursday, Welker's mother, Jill Welker, underwent a surgery to remove a cancerous growth from behind her right eye.

So today -- like all days this season -- Welker said this one is for his mom.

"She's doing fine. She's in surgery right now and I'll call her after practice to find out the details about it. But she's fine. She should be all right," Welker said. "I knew she had a cancer for awhile and I knew that I wanted to pitch for her this season. She means a lot and our family is real close, but we know we can battle through it and take strength from this."

And the Razorbacks are hoping Welker can take a little bit of what he's seen from Schmidt and Todd these last few days to the mound as well.

"I think it is (contagious)," Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn said. "Everybody in competition, you want to go out there and measure up to everybody else. It's just like how hitting can be contagious, so I think it can be a big boost for him.

"I know he's got a lot of heavy stuff on his mind. His mom is having surgery this morning (Thursday). She's got a growth in her eye and they're taking that out. I think things are going to be OK there, so we just need for him to go out there and do what he needs to do and just trust his ability."

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