Closing Time Comes Early For Arkansas
A school is lucky to have one shut down closer.
At Arkansas, there are two.
No matter the stage or situation, little seems to bother Barrett Astin or Colby Suggs. The junior righthanders shared Arkansas' closer role last season, anchoring a pitching staff that finished with the second-lowest earned run average (2.83) in school history.
Astin recorded 11 saves while Suggs went 7-1 with no starts on the mound. Their performances helped Arkansas flourish late in the season after struggling in conference play, winning the regional at Rice, super regional at Baylor and finishing one win shy of the College World Series Finals.
"Last year we would talk about each others' outings together—what did we see and what could we have done in situations?" Suggs said. "Just to be able to bounce ideas off each other is pretty cool, especially when you're in the same role.
"We're really good friends and we want to see each other succeed."
Astin and Suggs are roommates and cornerstones of arguably the best pitching staff in the college game. Both have overpowering stuff. Astin works comfortably in the 90-92 range and bumps the mid-90s on occasion, and he has developed a nasty 87-90 cutter to complement his devastating split-change—which "looks like it's missing half the baseball," in the words of Arkansas associate head coach Todd Butler. Suggs ranked as the No. 8 prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer after dominating hitters with a heavy 93-97 fastball and a power breaking ball. Scouting directors voted Suggs onto Baseball America's 2013 preseason All-America first team.
Because of the dynamic bullpen duo, the Hogs' talented starters, led by projected first-rounder Ryne Stanek and fourth-year starter Randall Fant, don't feel as much pressure as they might elsewhere. "Our mentality is when they get to the end of their game, one of us is going in and we need to make sure that we're ahead at the end of the ninth inning," Astin said. "Coach (Dave) Van Horn wanted the ball in either his or my hand at the end last year.
"It's good to have two closers. It keeps your arm fresh and kind of allows you to throw some midweek so we can stamp in a midweek win if we need to."With an unproven offense, pitching is behind the high expectations in Fayetteville. Despite losing three-year starter D.J. Baxendale (Twins, 10th round) and reliever Nolan Sanburn (Athletics, second round), Arkansas returns seven pitchers who threw at least 32 innings a year ago and 10 who recorded significant time on the mound.
"Sometimes it seems like the starters get all the publicity and all the glory, but to me it's about innings pitched and meaningful innings," said longtime Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn. "The first inning for the starter is probably the toughest one he's got because he's going in the game and isn't sure what's going to happen. He has a lot of adrenaline and emotions going, and it's the same thing for the relievers. When he's going in there the seventh, eighth, ninth innings, those are meaningful innings so you've got to be able to have guys who can go in there and get the job done in those situations. I think it's a little bit easier to start than relieve. Sometimes your better guys are out of the bullpen. If you've got good enough guys who can keep you in the game for five innings, then you can turn it over to the guys who have really good stuff."
Astin, a righthander from Forrest City in eastern Arkansas, is the staff wildcard. Arkansas coaches expect he will start some early in the season, but they are hopeful that highly recruited but undrafted freshman righthander Trey Killian can earn the third weekend spot, allowing Astin to join Suggs in the bullpen for the rugged SEC.
"I'm a big believer in having a sound bullpen," Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn said. "Typically, most of these kids when they come in here are used to playing seven-inning games. Now you're playing nine-inning games and there aren't a lot of starters who can go complete games. You do need some good starting pitching, but it's nice to be able to have guys at the end of the game for two or three innings who are quality enough to keep you in those games. When you've got a couple of bulldog competitors with good stuff, you feel pretty good and pretty confident that you can win those games."
Suggs, a Texas native who committed to the Razorbacks the day after a 12-inning classic win over Virginia at the 2009 College World Series, showed his mettle last season in a series-clinching Sunday win at Florida. Coming out of the bullpen, he retired Preston Tucker and Mike Zunino in succession in the eighth inning and recorded a scoreless ninth. Astin closed the game after the Razorbacks took the lead in the top of the 10th."I think it was at that point when I got both of them out in a row I thought to myself, 'OK, what am I doing right and can I repeat that?'" Suggs said. "That's what I've gone out and strived to do."
Both pitchers were called on in a 1-0 extra-innings win in Game Three of the Waco Super Regional at Baylor. Suggs recorded the final three outs, stranding a pair of runners and sending the Razorbacks to Omaha. Arkansas used five pitchers that night to shut down the Bears, one of the best hitting teams in the country a year ago.
"It just shows the amount of confidence we have in our staff to throw out that many people in a win-or-go-home game," Suggs said.
Arkansas wasn't so fortunate at the College World Series, losing twice to South Carolina after snapping the Gamecocks' record 22-game postseason winning streak earlier in the week. It's the unwanted experience that came from the final loss that fuels a talented group.
"At the level we're playing, you've got to have experience," Jorn said. "You've got to have talent, but you'll take your lumps along the way. We've played and experienced what's going on in our league, especially with the level of competition and the places that we've gone like Omaha last year.
"It's an invaluable thing to be able to gain that experience and know what the expectations are and how to prepare."
Matt Jones covers the Razorbacks for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.