FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas pitcher Barrett Astin's early-season dominance was impressive.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas pitcher Barrett Astin’s early-season dominance was impressive.
The sophomore was the Razorbacks’ most dependable relief pitcher to open 2012, frustrating opponents late in games. His success has faded since, though. Arkansas’ closer went 1-5 in Southeastern Conference games and allowed five unearned runs — one hit, two walks, one hit batter, two Arkansas errors — in one-third inning during his last appearance.
“I think I’ve just been trying to get hitters to strike out,” Astin said, trying to explain his recent problems. “I’ve been coming in with the bases loaded, two people on, trying to get out of a jam. I’ve just been trying to get hitters to miss instead of pitching to contact and getting a ground ball and getting out of the inning.”
That’s why Astin called the week between Arkansas’ quick exit from the SEC Tournament and the start of Houston Regional play a “blessing in disguise.” The extended break has provided much-needed rest and, more important, some bullpen work for Astin and the rest of the relievers as the Razorbacks (39-19) prepare to play Sam Houston State (38-20) on Friday at Rice’s Reckling Park.
Astin said the crew got a chance to regroup and finetune some flaws with pitching coach Dave Jorn.
“The relievers don’t get much bullpen time during the season,” Astin said. “This week off we’ve gotten two bullpen sessions to kind of straighten things out. Coach Jorn has done a great job with us getting back to our basic mechanics.”
Starter D.J. Baxendale (7-4, 3.02 ERA) will be first on the mound to face Sam Houston State on Friday afternoon. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said sophomore Ryne Stanek (6-4, 3.09 ERA) will start Saturday, whether it’s an elimination game or a chance to move into the driver’s seat.
But the bullpen group of Astin, Brandon Moore, Colby Suggs, Nolan Sanburn, Trent Daniel and Tyler Wright will be equally important in a regional that could take as many as five games to win.
“We should be ready,” Van Horn said. “Looking at it rest-wise, if somebody had to be used a couple of times out of the bullpen like Astin or Suggs I don’t think that would be an issue. They’ve had as much rest as they’ve had all year.”
Arkansas entered the season with its pitching staff labeled as the team’s strength.
The Razorbacks have backed it up for the most part, moving into the regional ranked third in the SEC and 13th in the nation in ERA (2.99).
It hasn’t been the smoothest ride, though. The pitching numbers dipped in SEC play (fifth in the conference with a 3.68 ERA) and there were shaky performances from starters and relievers alike.
But Jorn said the group has performed and will be prepared to lead Arkansas through a regional.
“These guys have done a good job for us all year long,” Jorn said. “There have been a little off times here or there, but for the most part they work and they listen. They compete. They’ve got good stuff. So I feel good about all of them.”
Arkansas may enter regional play without one of its key left-handed relievers. Cade Lynch (3-1, 2.11 ERA) was hospitalized in Birmingham last week because of migraine headaches and is still trying to recover. He didn’t travel with the team Tuesday, but the Razorbacks are holding out hope he can join them at some point this weekend.
If not, Arkansas loses its top left-hander out of the bullpen. It means Daniel, Wright and, perhaps, even freshman Michael Gunn will be counted on.
“At the end of the year, you’re looking for guys that maybe haven’t done what they’ve been expected to do,” Jorn said. “Sometimes you get guys that step up and do better than what they did before.”
Astin is one pitcher Arkansas will be counting on either way this week. In fact, Van Horn said if the Razorbacks make a move this week the Forrest City native must be “a big part of it.”
Astin understands his responsibilities and said he has worked on mechanics all week, determined to shake off his late-season funk. Astin said the break has been important mentally and physically for he and the rest of the pitching staff.
“We’ve had a lot of down time and rest time now,” Astin said. “I know I’m fully recovered and I think we’re ready to go.”