By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
ARKANSAS NEWS BUREAU
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas junior Ryne Stanek is regarded as one of the best pitchers in college baseball and has preseason All-America honors to prove it.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander also is considered a prime prospect for the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft later this summer. His stature as the staff’s ace during his final season at Arkansas is one reason the Razorbacks carry NCAA title hopes.
But there’s something bothering Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn about Stanek two weeks into the regular season. The pitcher’s slow starts haven’t improved.
"It’s the same story third year in a row," Van Horn said last Friday after Stanek threw 76 pitches in three innings. "I don’t know what else to say."
Stanek, who is coming off two subpar performances to open the season, will get another crack when the third-ranked Razorbacks (7-1) open play in the four-team Coca-Cola Classic in Surprise, Ariz., today. He’ll be on the mound as Arkansas plays its first of four games against a familiar foe — Arizona State (4-2).
The Overland Park, Kan., native said he is frustrated, too, about the way he performed last Friday against Evansville.
The first two batters he faced reached base after full counts. It forced Stanek — who was on a limited pitch count — to throw 25 pitches in the first inning. He reached 76 by the end of the third and was pulled after allowing two runs on four hits.
So Stanek (1-0, 3.86 ERA) is eager for tonight’s start against the Sun Devils.
"I’m ready to get going again just because I know I’m better than that," Stanek said. "So I’ve got to go out and just give our team a good chance. Throw strikes."
Van Horn brought up Stanek’s slow starts throughout the preseason, saying it was a notable flaw for a pitcher who was dominant in the postseason last year. Early-season opponents have had a tendency of getting to the pitcher quickly and Van Horn hoped better command of his fastball would help end the routine.
Stanek has some issues in the opener, allowing one run on two hits in four innings against Western Illinois. His only real mistake came in allowing a home run.
But Van Horn said he had a conversation with Stanek after the season-opening start, which couldn’t keep him from enduring some struggles against Evansville.
"It’s the same as last year," Van Horn said. "Great command in the bullpen and spotting it up and looking good then a slow, slow start."
Stanek said he hadn’t really noticed it until his meeting with Van Horn. He earned wins during his first six starts in 2012, including a victory against Texas Tech in the Houston College Classic. But Stanek knows his command should improve.
"I guess everybody expects a lot out of me and I expect a lot out of myself," Stanek said. "It just comes with the territory of being looked at as a Friday night guy and having to go out and do your job and be that guy. It’s just part of it."
Van Horn remains confident Stanek will work his way through it eventually.
He noted Stanek has been dominant for the Razorbacks at the end of the past two seasons, turning in some impressive postseason starts. It included wins in both the Houston Regional against Rice and College World Series against South Carolina.
But Stanek has two starts remaining until Arkansas opens SEC play against Ole Miss on March 15. So if the early struggles continue, Van Horn said he might have to evaluate Arkansas’ pitching plans entering the three-game series.
"If that’s the pattern, if that’s what it is, it’s what it is," Van Horn said of the slow starts. "Then it just puts a little pressure on myself and our coaching staff. Pitch him on Friday night in conference play the first couple weeks or do we wait? Wait until he gets his stuff together. I’m hoping he starts showing signs this week and then signs next week against San Diego State and then it’s an easy decision. But if you get the first two outings the next two outings, then we’ve got a little issue don’t we?"
Stanek is confident it won’t come to that as the Razorbacks prepare to play Arizona State. He will pitch again on five days rest instead of the normal six days. But Stanek said that hasn’t altered his preparation for tonight’s early-season test.
Arkansas and Arizona State have played seven times in the past five seasons, including games in the 2010 NCAA Super Regional and 2011 NCAA Regional games.
The Razorbacks, who will play the Sun Devils tonight and again Saturday, are 0-5 all-time against Arizona State in Arizona. But a strong performance from Stanek — whose pitch count will be roughly 90 tonight — could result in a breakthrough.
Stanek said he’ll be ready to deliver after slow starts the past two weeks.
"I just know there are things I need to work on," Stanek said. "Everybody has stuff to work on and mine have just shown a little bit more the first couple times out. I’m just getting back to work like usual and trying to get back on course."