FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas outfielder Matt Vinson isn’t surprised by pitcher Trey Killian’s rapid rise in the starting rotation.
He and the rest of the Razorbacks watched the right-hander last fall and realized what he was capable of accomplishing. He has proven it on the field in his first four appearances, too, turning in impressive outings every time he grabs the baseball.
So Vinson expects nothing less from the freshman in Baum Stadium tonight.
“I feel like he can go out there and get a win against anybody any day,” Vinson said.
Killian will get a chance to do it against one of the nation’s top pitchers as No. 15 Arkansas (13-5) opens Southeastern Conference play against No. 6 Ole Miss (18-1) in Baum Stadium at 6:35 p.m. The right-hander, who was elevated to the Friday night role by Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn on Wednesday, will earn the biggest start of his young career opposite Ole Miss right-hander Bobby Wahl.
The pitching matchup highlights the three-game series between SEC West rivals and teams ranked in top 15. It just isn’t the one anyone envisioned when the schedule was announced in the offseason.
Killian replaces junior Ryne Stanek as the Game 1 starter. Stanek, who opened the season as Arkansas’ ace, has moved back to a Sunday start. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said the switch was based on performance the past four weeks.
“Just going with the guys that are getting it done,” Van Horn said. “That’s always been our philosophy and that’s what we tell them when we recruit them. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you’ve done. We’re just going to go with the guy we think can get it done. I think Killian has been our hottest pitcher.”
Van Horn calls Killian a “strike-throwing machine” and the Mountain Home native has lived up to the billing in the first month of his Arkansas career.
He enters tonight’s start allowing two earned runs and six hits in 21 innings this season. Even more impressive: Killian has 22 strikeouts and just one walk.
“He hasn’t shown any fear whatsoever,” Arkansas outfielder Brian Anderson said. “He attacks the zone. That’s what we’re looking for from a Friday night guy.”
Stanek (1-1, 3.71 ERA), meanwhile, has struggled in four starts.
The junior – who was urged by Van Horn to get off to better starts this season – has walked 10 and struck out 16 in 17 innings pitched so far. Rugged performances have forced him to leave games early, putting some stress on the Arkansas bullpen.
Van Horn said last week he’s still confident Stanek will produce this season. But Killian has earned the opportunity to take the mound first despite being a freshman.
“He competes and that’s what I love about him the most,” Vinson said Wednesday. “He has good stuff, there’s no question. But I like how he goes out there and competes. His attitude is great. And I feel great with him on the mound.”
Killian alone won’t be able to carry the Razorbacks to a win tonight, though.
Arkansas’ offense — which struggled throughout a four-game losing streak at the Coca-Cola Classic — will be counted on to produce against Wahl (4-0, 1.99 ERA). The Ole Miss starter is coming off a 104-strikeout season and is regarded as a prime pitching prospect – along with Stanek — for the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft.
He’s part of a strong one-two punch for the Rebels, joining right-hander Mike Mayers in the weekend rotation. Mayers (2-0, 1.52 ERA) has a successful history against the Razorbacks, shutting them out in two starts last season.
So Van Horn said his lineup — which includes Vinson again after the outfielder missed a week with a sprained wrist — will face a big test once again. But he believes Arkansas has gained confidence after winning six straight.
“What happened out in Arizona, it’s history, but it definitely opened some eyes,” Van Horn said. “It made some guys realize they need to work a little bit harder. We need to be able to drive in runs and do what you’ve got to do to win close games.”
Arkansas enters conference play with some momentum at the plate after 20-2 and 13-0 wins against Alabama A&M this week.
Arkansas recorded a school-record 19 walks in the opening game of the midweek series. They collected a season-high 18 hits in Wednesday’s victory.
The caliber of Alabama A&M’s pitching is nothing like what the Razorbacks will face tonight. But Arkansas is confident it can produce with Killian on the mound to win.
“We know it’s a different animal than what we’ve been playing,” Vinson said. “It’s going to be intense Friday night and it will be fun just to see everybody and all the young guys kind of grow and see what conference is all about.”
No. 6 Ole Miss (18-1) at No. 15 Arkansas (13-5)
• When: Friday at 6:35 p.m., Saturday at 2:05 p.m., Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
• Where: Baum Stadium in Fayetteville
• Radio: Razorback Sports Network