FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn has his starting pitching rotation in place for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, sticking with the regular trio of Barrett Astin, Ryne Stanek and Randall Fant.
But what happens if the Razorbacks hang around in the two-loss elimination tournament longer than three games?
"If we’re here, we’ll be pitching a young guy," Van Horn said Monday. "Probably a freshman. And then we’ll be using that bullpen and piecing that together."
Van Horn is adamant Arkansas won’t stress its pitching staff with NCAA Regionals looming, but the Razorbacks do see the SEC Tournament as an opportunity for its top-ranked group to get in some much-needed work. Several pitchers who don’t normally get opportunities to stand on the mound and in the spotlight may be counted on if Arkansas is still playing later this weekend.
The group includes freshmen Colin Poche (3-0) and Trey Killian (3-3), who haven’t thrown much the past several weeks after starting five games apiece earlier in the season. They’ve combined to start 10 games in 23 appearances.
Tyler Wright, Landon Simpson and Chris Oliver also are candidates who could earn see opportunities at the SEC Tournament. Each has one start this season, putting them in the group of potential starters if Arkansas sticks around in the tournament.
Astin said the entire staff — which leads the nation in earned run average (1.90) — is motivated to win because of the chance to pitch this week. In fact, Astin added this week is "important for us right now" because the Hogs "need to get work done."
"We’ve got some guys that need to get some more innings and more work whether it’s in bullpens or games," Astin said. "If we make it a few games deep we need to find a fourth starter. That may be something we need in a regional next week."
No Starter Named
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco has not announced a starting pitcher for today’s game against the Razorbacks. But Bianco isn’t expected to turn to staff ace Bobby Wahl.
Bianco said earlier this week Wahl (9-0, 1.99 ERA) would not start Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday in the SEC Tournament. He said Wahl may be used in relief instead after starting the regular season finale at LSU on Saturday.
"We want to pitch him and obviously need to pitch him, but we also have to be careful that he’s really feeling good by the time the regional rolls around," Bianco said during the pre-tournament teleconference Monday.
Mike Mayers, the Rebels’ No. 2 starter, was on the mound for Tuesday’s win against Kentucky. It leaves the team’s No. 3 starter, Sam Smith, as the most likely candidate to step on the mound against the Razorbacks.
Smith (3-0, 3.28 ERA) started the series finale at Arkansas on March 17 and allowed one run on three hits in five innings. He did not factor into the decision during a game Ole Miss won 6-4 in 13 innings.
Arkansas fell from No. 44 to No. 48 in the NCAA’s official Ratings Percentage Index this week after its 1-2 performance at Auburn. The Razorbacks finished third in the SEC standings, but are 11th among conference teams in RPI.
The low rating has dimmed Arkansas’ chances of hosting an NCAA Regional. But Astin said the Razorbacks can’t be consumed by the RPI this week.
"Being here for three years, I’ve realized that you can never really worry about that," Astin said. "We could win four or five games here and still not host. Or we can win two and host. It just depends on what the committee does."
Vanderbilt (No. 1) and LSU (No. 6) are locks to host regionals. Mississippi State (No. 10) and South Carolina (No. 11) are hopeful, too, even though the Razorbacks finished with better SEC records and went a combined 5-1 against both teams.
Ole Miss (No. 18), Florida (No. 26), Alabama (No. 28), Auburn (No. 32), Kentucky (No. 39) and Texas A&M (No. 44) also are ahead of Arkansas in the RPI.
"We finished in third place in this powerful conference," Van Horn said. "We finished a couple, three games ahead of some really good teams that are getting talked about getting a regional. I hope we all get a regional. But that’s really out of my hands."
Breaking Through 0-2
Arkansas hasn’t enjoyed much success at the SEC Tournament under Van Horn.
In fact, more than half the time the Razorbacks have qualified for the field it has made a quick exit. Arkansas has gone 0-2 five times in the nine years it has played in Hoover, Ala., during Van Horn’s 10-year tenure with the program.
Arkansas lost to Mississippi State (9-1) and Ole Miss (2-0) in last year’s tournament and Astin called it a let down. But he also said it was an important experience for the Razorbacks, who won seven of their first eight games in the NCAA Tournament.
Astin believes that experience will pay off as it tries to avoid a 0-2 week again.
"We have a lot of guys back that were in the postseason last year," Astin said. "We let ourselves down at the SEC Tournament last year. In the postseason we figured out what it took to win. So that’s what we’re bringing to the team this year."