Pitching Shines For Arkansas In SEC Tournament
HOOVER, Ala—Arkansas’ run at the Southeastern Conference Tournament ended Saturday in the semifinals with a 2-1 loss to Louisiana State. But along the way, the Razorbacks showed they have the kind of pitching depth to make a deep postseason run.
Lefthander Kacey Murphy started things off for Arkansas with a win in its tournament opener on Wednesday. Ace Blaine Knight, on his way to an All-American season, beat top-ranked Florida and righthander Jackson Kowar, a likely first-round pick, on Friday. Righthander Isaiah Campbell, who has battled injury in an up-and-down season, on Saturday threw five solid innings against LSU. The bullpen also did its job as five relievers this week combined to hold opponents to three runs over 10.1 innings.
Arkansas’ wealth of options on the mound, especially with its starting pitching and closer Matt Cronin, has played a key role in its success this season. It also will make them dangerous in the NCAA Tournament, which they enter as one of favorites to reach the College World Series.
Knight threw six strong innings Friday against Florida, holding the Gators to one run on four hits and three walks. He improved to 10-0, 2.78 with 86 strikeouts and 21 walks.
Knight this season has taken on and beaten a laundry list of likely Day 1 draft picks and All-Americans, including Kent State’s Joey Murray, Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle, Mississippi’s Ryan Rolison, Auburn’s Casey Mize, Florida’s Brady Singer and Kowar, Mississippi State’s Konnor Pilkington and Texas A&M’s Mitchell Kilkenny.
Knight last year was a draft-eligible sophomore and garnered significant interest but wound up coming back to school. He now figures to be drafted in the first couple rounds and has been an integral part of the Razorbacks’ success.
Coach Dave Van Horn said Knight has matured over the last year.
“Whether he’s going good or bad you really can’t tell,” Van Horn said. “I think he realizes he has the stuff to get out of jams. I feel like we play really good behind him. We make play after play and he makes pitch after pitch and finds ways to get out of it.”
Campbell has a powerful right arm but after missing last year with bone spurs in his elbow, he’s still working to consistently put everything together. He was excellent for five innings Saturday before running into a bit of trouble and surrendering a two-run home run to Zach Watson, the swing that decided the game.
But Campbell was pleased with his outing after striking out seven and holding the Tigers to four hits and a walk. He threw 86 pitches, his most since March 17. He said it gave him confidence going into the NCAA Tournament.
“My stuff worked really well today,” Campbell said. “I was getting ahead of hitters for the most part. My changeup was good, it was cutting, and the two-seam was doing a lot of things.”
Arkansas’ bullpen has long been a position of strength and it has featured prominently this season. Even when Cronin was sidelined for a few weeks by mononucleosis, the Razorbacks’ relievers continued to pitch well and accumulate innings that should help them during the postseason.
“They’ve gotten a lot of experience down the stretch,” Van Horn said. “When Cronin went out with mono we asked a couple guys to step up in—(Jake) Reindl and (Barrett) Loeske and Kole Ramage pitched well against Georgia—and they did. What it did, it kind of gave us confidence in them.”
Arkansas has a powerful offense that is capable of scoring quickly and in bunches. The Razorbacks have hit 84 home runs this season and are averaging about seven runs per game. But at some point this postseason they will have to call on their pitching staff to win them a game. Arkansas’ pitchers showed during the SEC Tournament that they will be ready when that game comes.