Wicklander Dazzles In Series Clincher Against South Carolina
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Much has understandably been made about Arkansas’ pitching depth this season and the very modern way that it deploys that depth. With few exceptions, roles on the Arkansas staff aren’t really a thing. Rather, it’s all about using the best arms as often as possible in the most optimal spots.
Thursday night gave us a great example, when Arkansas started righthander Caleb Bolden largely because he was as fresh as anyone, with the expectations that he would give them three or four innings. After 3.1 solid innings, he turned it over to three different relievers who were all used in very specific situations throughout the game in a 6-1 victory.
Long story short, Arkansas is very comfortable not having a real workhorse in the rotation, which is different than most any other serious national title contender in college baseball.
That said, the top-ranked Razorbacks will take that kind of effort if they can get it, and on Friday, in a 5-1 win in the rubber game of a top-10 series at No. 9 South Carolina, Patrick Wicklander gave them that kind of effort.
The lefthander threw seven innings, giving up two hits and one run with no walks and five strikeouts, and he made precisely one mistake, a hanging breaking ball that the Gamecocks’ Brady Allen punished for a solo homer in the bottom of the third.
“(Wicklander) goes seven innings, doesn’t walk a batter, strikes out five and just pitched ahead in the count all night and gave us a chance to kind of chip away and beat a good team and a good pitcher in the most important game of the series,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.
Frankly, Wicklander made it look easy, even without the type of dominant stuff that we typically associate with pitchers making it look easy.
Wicklander pounded the strike zone with his low-90s fastball relentlessly, as he ended the day with 62 strikes in his 83 pitches. And it’s like the Gamecocks were just sitting and watching. They were swinging at strikes early in counts, but they just couldn’t do anything with them.
Eight of the 21 outs Wicklander recorded came on the first pitch of the at-bat, and it also wasn’t a matter of South Carolina batters hitting the ball on the screws right at people. He induced six infield pop-ups and had seven ground ball outs.
“He just threw everything for a strike,” Van Horn said. “He threw a lot of fastballs, worked it in and out, got ahead in the count and then he would elevate some pitches (in) 1-2, 0-2 (counts) and got a few strikeouts there. Got some fly balls, got some first-pitch outs and it allowed him to stay in the game because he kept his pitch count down.”
This has to be considered Wicklander’s best outing of the season, but he showed glimpses of being this type of pitcher earlier in the season as well.
Against Alabama, he gave up three hits and one run in 5.1 innings. Against Mississippi State, it was two hits and one run in five innings, and then two hits and one run in six innings against Auburn. Last week against Texas A&M, he gave up just one hit in 4.2 shutout innings.
On the whole, he’s having an excellent season. In 10 appearances and six starts, he has a 2.20 ERA and 44 strikeouts compared to 14 walks in 41 innings, which is an improvement over his first two seasons, when he had roughly a two-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“I just think he’s repeating his delivery,” Van Horn said. “His mechanics just seem really good and he’s in control of his body.”
Arkansas may not have a workhorse in the mold of Isaiah Campbell or Blaine Knight, two recent Arkansas aces, but Wicklander seems to be auditioning for the role down the stretch, and he may have some company for that role with righthander Peyton Pallette having also pitched well and shown the ability to dominate in a more traditional sense.
“I feel a lot better about it, our whole team feels good about it,” Van Horn said of what they’ve gotten from those two and the pitching staff as a whole of late. “I commented to the pitching staff right after the game (that) we won two out of three because they gave us an opportunity to do that.”
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Offensively Friday night, Arkansas just made South Carolina pay for seemingly every little mistake and took advantage of every opportunity it was given.
In a 2-1 game in the top of the fifth, Cayden Wallace was at the plate with two outs and down in the count 1-2. South Carolina righthander Will Sanders wasn’t able to put Wallace away, though. Wallace fouled off the first 1-2 offering before pulling his hands in and yanking a breaking ball out to left field for a two-run homer, giving Arkansas a 4-1 lead.
With the way Wicklander was throwing, and with the offensive struggles South Carolina had all weekend outside of making a push late in a game 2 victory, a 4-1 lead was already going to be tough to overcome, but the Gamecocks gifted another run in the top of the seventh.
With one out, shortstop Jalen Battles drew a walk, moved to second on a wild pitch, and after the second out of the inning was recorded, scored on an error by South Carolina shortstop George Callil. It ended up not being instrumental in the result of the game, especially given that Arkansas stopper Kevin Kopps came on and struck out all six batters he faced to finish it, but it was another example of the types of things you can’t do and expect to beat the Razorbacks.
At this point, Arkansas has spent all season showing us how frustrating it must be to try to win a series against them. Their offense can strike fast, as shown by the slew of home runs this weekend. We’ve seen time and again that it can win games by throwing a million different bullpen looks at opponents. And now we’ve seen enough to know that it can pull out the occasional standout starting pitching performance.
“We have good pitching, a good bullpen, we have a pretty solid lineup that will bite you,” Van Horn said.
Critics may continue to say that it’s hard to be a totally complete team if you don’t have starting pitchers you can count on to get deep into games week after week. Maybe Wicklander will continue to silence those critics by doing more of what he did on Friday, but even if he doesn’t, this Arkansas team looks, and more importantly, wins like a complete team.