State of the Hogs: Closers

Arkansas begins the season Friday with a doubleheader with Washington State. If things go well, the Razorbacks will need two closers. It appears they have them ready.

The way I remember baseball from my youth, you put a starting pitcher out there, he tried to go nine innings. There wasn't any of this closing business. The best pitchers were starters and if your team was successful, it's because they pitched a long time.

I'm not talking about college baseball, just baseball in general.

I remember Ferguson Jenkins going the distance. Don Drysdale gave you nine innings. Orel Hershiser would put up nine goose eggs.

That's not what they do anymore, especially in college baseball. Starting pitching is still important, but it's what you do with the back end of the bullpen that makes a difference.

How did Arkansas make it to their last College World Series? As much as anything, it was about Jay Sawatski closing, perhaps twice in one weekend. How did Georgia get there last year? The Bulldogs had the best closer in college baseball.

About twice a year Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn will tell us that the key inning are numbers eight and nine. Over and over, he's said, "I tell our guys, a lot happens in college baseball from the eighth inning on."

Baseball season opens Friday at Baum Stadium. Because of bad weather forecasts for Saturday, the Hogs are going to play a doubleheader with Washington State. That means there are going to be two different sets of eighth and ninth innings, two opportunities for a closer.

For once, this Arkansas baseball team may be in good shape for that end-of-game run. They've got good back end pitching, and good catching. One is as important as the other.

The prospects for the closers are Stephen Richards, Zack Cox, Jeremy Heatley and Justin Wells. The key might be if the Hogs have enough depth in the front end or leave them all in the closer role.

They will start the season with two solid starters, Mike Bolsinger and Bryan Bingham, sitting out. Bolsinger could be down from four to six weeks with mono. Bingham may miss a couple of weeks with a nagging rib injury.

But the Hogs have enough starters that pitching coach Dave Jorn wants to leave Richards, Cox, Heatley and Wells in the pen.

"That's four good ones," Jorn said. "All four of them have good enough makeup, good enough stuff to handle the late-inning situations. We like all of them a lot."

Richards and Wells are returnees. Cox is a true freshman. Heatley is a junior college transfer. Richards, the lone lefty in that bunch, battled arm problems last year. After an off-field incident in the early fall led to a suspension, he's been outstanding in all areas over the last six months.

"We blew some leads last year," Van Horn said. "I think we are going to be much better there. Richards wasn't able to help us much last year. He'd have a good outing, then he'd be injured. He's much better. He had a little deal at the start of the school, and that seemed to get some things corrected. He's been on a mission since then."

Wells turned into the team's most dependable pitcher midway through last season. He could be a starter, but with added depth gets to move to the bullpen. He bounces back quickly so that role might be perfect. He's the spirit of the staff.

"Wells might be our most popular player," Van Horn said. "He can start, close, pitch in the middle and he could probably play shortstop. He can just play baseball. He's our wild card on the mound."

Cox is in that same mold, extremely versatile. He'll be the every-day third baseman and will hit in a power slot. His ability to locate pitches was a surprise when he arrived in the fall.

"I saw him play in summer ball and it was a tournament in Atlanta," Jorn said. "He got to pitch in a game real late, after a rain delay, maybe around midnight. That's the only time I saw him pitch. I knew he could throw hard, but not locate like I've seen here. He can really locate."

Cox has a late-breaking, sharp breaker. It may move just six inches. And, it's mostly a strike. It's tough to hit. Plus, he throws the hummer. You hear his fastball coming.

I played catcher growing up and I'd go back to the dugout when my man on the mound had it working, tell everyone, "It's humming today, boys."

When Heatley takes to the mound, you'll see someone who looks like a football player, 6-2, 221. He was a football player. He played football and baseball his first year in college at Texas A&M-Kingsville. He switched to Northlake College to concentrate on baseball last year. In high school, he earned 10 letters (four baseball, three football, three basketball).

Heatley got two starts in the fall Cardinal-White series, going 1-0 with a 3.00 earned run average. His breaker might be the best on the team.

I like closers with breakers. But it puts plenty of pressure on the catching. With senior Ryan Cisterna and freshman James McCann, the Hogs are solid behind the plate. Defensively, they will give Jorn confidence to call the low breakers with runners at third base. With some catchers, you can't do that.

Cisterna has put a lot into his final college campaign. He stayed in Fayetteville in the summer to fill out his lanky frame in the weight room. He improved his fundamentals and sharpness defensively with steady work from new UA assistant coach Chris Curry, an excellent catcher with six years of high minor league experience.

Then, Cisterna stayed in Fayetteville over the Christmas holidays instead of heading back to the sun in his Gilbert, Ariz., home to work daily in Fayetteville with former major league catcher Vance Wilson.

"With Cisterna, you really feel comfortable," Jorn said. "I'm in the dugout calling pitches and I need trust in the catcher to be able to know what the hitter's doing in the box. Maybe, he's moved on top of the plate and we need to come in with the pitch. I can't see that from the dugout, but Ryan can shake me off if I call the wrong location.

"With Cisterna, it's a lot like we had it after we had Brian Walker for awhile. You get confidence and a great deal of feedback from Ryan. It's a good situation."

It may turn into a great situation. I like solid closers and solid catching.

Jeremy Heatley helps the Hogs with talent in the back end of the bullpen.

Zack Cox will play third base, but also help as the closer.

Stephen Richards is a lefty option.

Justin Wells gives the Hogs versatility on the mound.

Ryan Cisterna provides experience at catcher.

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