HOOVER, Ala.—Coming out of high school, Ryne Stanek was kind of a big deal.
An unsigned third-round pick from Stilwell, Kan., Stanek and Dominic Ficociello were the pillars of an Arkansas recruiting class that ranked eighth in the nation last October. Stanek, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound righthander, entered the spring as the nation's No. 4 prospect on BA's Top 50 Freshmen list.
It's hard to blame Arkansas fans if they wondered what all the fuss was about. A bout with illness early in the season helped cause Stanek to get off to a slow start, and inconsistent command led to a very inconsistent season. In his last start against Mississippi last week, Stanek recorded just one out before getting yanked in the first inning. He carried a 2-2, 4.75 mark into Friday—when he proceeded to show everyone exactly what the fuss was about.
Stanek allowed just one run on two hits in 7 2/3 innings, walking three and striking out five in the Razorbacks' 4-1 win in an SEC tournament elimination game against Alabama. His stuff was simply electric: His fastball ranged from 91-96 mph, and he was able to get swings and misses with his two hard breaking balls.
"I just had to stay in control," Stanek said. "The last game I was out of control, had too many moving parts, was rushing through everything . . . I stuck mostly fastball-curveball-slider (on Friday), only went to my changeup in the last inning. I had good command of everything, kept it over the plate."
His command surprised everyone in both dugouts.
"We didn't have a lot of tape or anything on him, but obviously we knew he had a big arm," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "He turned down a lot of money in the draft. But I wasn't expecting his command to be what it was. I knew it was going to be a live arm, and it was. He had three pitches for strikes, and was really spotting up the fastball. (Taylor ) Dugas and a couple of really experienced hitters came back early in the game and said, 'This guy's really good; he's got really good stuff.' I'm sure Dave (Van Horn) and those guys have got to be excited about this going into the next few weeks, because that's a real bullet that you've got moving forward."
For his part, Arkansas coach Van Horn admitted he wasn't particularly confident about Stanek heading into the game, but he did not want to throw a lefthander against Alabama, which hit Arkansas lefthanders hard in two earlier games this season, including in Wednesday's SEC tournament opener.
"I told (pitching) coach (Dave) Jorn, 'Let's just go with the righthander,' " Van Horn said. "'If he gives us one (inning), that's fine. If he gives us six, that's great—we'll just be ready to go get him.' And it worked."
So when three straight Alabama batters reached base with one out in the fourth, Arkansas' bullpen sprang to life in a hurry. Was Van Horn prepared to pull the plug on Stanek's outing at that point?
"Yeah," he said, "Because we've seen it. We've lived it. We've seen it go south real quick."
But while Van Horn said Stanek has had a tendency this year to elevate balls and stop throwing strikes abruptly, on Friday he was able to stop Alabama's rally in its tracks, escaping the inning with back-to-back strikeouts to limit the damage to one run.
"He handled it," Van Horn said.
Stanek might yet wind up as a top-five overall prospect for the 2012 draft as an eligible sophomore—he sure looked like he will be on Friday. The more pertinent question is: Can Stanek now be trusted in the NCAA tournament?
"He's a good arm, he's from the Midwest, a little behind in his development," Van Horn said. "Part if it is mechanics, and there's a little bit mental. He's in a tough league, and I think he grew up a lot today."
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