State of the Hogs: Pitching Potential

The Arkansas baseball team is rolling, but there may be more left for the stretch run. Can the Hogs find just a little bit more pitching?

Bill Valentine used to give his Arkansas Travelers a little pep talk when Ray Winder Field was packed with a Pony Night promotion. "Give me a win," he said. "We've got all these people in the park. Please send them home happy. They'll come back."

There was no special deal this week when Arizona State and Arkansas squared off in what had to be the only No. 1 vs. No. 1 matchup of any sport at a UA home venue in school history. That is a dream promotion if you are a marketer. Your team did it all for you.

And, the best news, the Hogs sent all of those fans home happy. They'll come back and more will try to join them.

This sweep of Arizona State, the giant of the Pac-10, will be etched in Razorback baseball lore. Eventually, around 30,000 will be telling their friends they were there.

The good news is there may be more great matchups down the stretch to pack Baum. It may happen again this weekend with Vanderbilt coming to town. Or, the LSU or Ole Miss weekends in a few weeks may be big games in the standings or for plum post-season seedings.

The real question is not whether Matt Shanklin and the UA marketing men can figure out a way to get 12,000 into Baum this season (and I bet they do), but whether this team has hit its peak. There are hints that perhaps there is more in the tank.

Most realize that not all of the hitting has clicked at the same time. It still might. Brett Eibner and Jacob House are starting to hit and hitting coach Todd Butler is pleased with improved performance by the whole squad in two-strike situations and better bunting.

"We've probably worked more on those two areas this season and it's starting to pay off," Butler said. "It's a great group. They are the same every day. They just want to come to work and get better."

But it's the pitching that might give this team a huge boost if a few more arms jump into the mix for what is a tough stretch run.

Pitching coach Dave Jorn likes his staff , but he's quick to point out that it is far from it's potential.

"I think we have about three guys on our pitching staff that haven't figured it out yet," Jorn said. "These are guys who have enough stuff.

"Jeremy Heatley is a junior college guy who is new to the program. He's got good enough stuff. He doesn't really know how to do it yet in this environment, at this level with his experience. He needs to keep working because his stuff is good enough to contribute.

"Then there's Christian Kowalchuk, another junior college guy. He's a lefty we'd like to have stepping out of that bullpen. That would be big.

"Drew Smyly is another guy that can do a decent job. He might have grown up a little (Wednesday night). He hasn't figured out how he can throw a breaking ball for a strike, put a little bite to it instead of just spinning it up there. He struggled, got his butt chewed in the dugout when he came in and then went back out there and sucked it up and performed. He might have toughened up tonight to contribute when you really need him down the line."

There was excitement on the staff with the return of Bryan Bingham as a starting pitcher against ASU. The 6-6 Bingham was penciled in after the fall as a conference starter, but he sustained a rib injury lifting firewood over the Christmas break, then hurt an oblique muscle in his early season comeback. He pitched to nine batters, throwing 34 pitches against the Sun Devils.

"He's been on the shelf for so long you couldn't expect very much," Jorn said. "He didn't have a secondary pitch. He didn't have a curve ball, didn't have a change up. He had to use a lot of fast balls. He had good velocity, but he lacked sharp command with it.

"When you face a good ball club, you have to locate it and throw something soft for a strike. You can't expect that much against a team like that. They've been playing good baseball for a long time this season."

There was another bright spot from the bullpen. Freshman Zack Cox pitched three strong innings. "He pitched good," Jorn said. "He's another guy who could be a factor. He's had a bad back, but he sucked it up."

That apparently is happening elsewhere, too.

"We've got a good group of kids," Jorn said. "They are going to compete. They got good character. We've got more talent that hasn't risen yet. And, if it does, we are going to do a lot better."

Right now, things are falling right. Van Horn is pushing a lot of buttons right. He's got some options in the outfield, in the infield and just a lot of interchangeable parts. Another strength is catching.

Assistant coach Chris Curry has had fun with Ryan Cisterna, James McCann and Tom Hauskey. All played key roles against Arizona State. Cisterna finished off both games behind the plate after McCann halted the Sun Devil running game. Hauskey had a key hit as a pinch hitter.

"All three of those guys have worked extremely hard," Curry said. "They come to the park early even when we play games and are working at their blocking technique. They have improved their hitting.

"McCann was four-for-four in running situations against Arizona State. We challenged him before this series that they were going to try to run on him and he stepped it up.

"McCann is a freshman, but I challenged him with this big crowd in here tonight not to play like a freshman but like a senior. I think he did."

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