FAYETTEVILLE — The way Brandon Moore remembers it, the young members of Arkansas’ pitching staff set a bold goal after the 2011 season.
The group had just navigated through its first year of college baseball with freshmen like Moore, Ryne Stanek and Barrett Astin playing key roles. They enjoyed some decent results, leading the Razorbacks to a 40-win season. So they were ambitious.
“We wanted to break the school record for ERA,” Moore said. “We didn’t do it last year. So it was our goal again this year. … But we didn’t imagine doing this.”
Arkansas (37-20), which opens the NCAA Tournament against Bryant (44-16-1) tonight at 7, is on course to do more than just break the school’s ERA record.
The Razorbacks have all but obliterated it with an NCAA-best 1.87 ERA, which has topped the Arkansas mark set by Norm DeBriyn’s 1976 team (2.74). It also has Arkansas in position to become the first NCAA team to finish with an ERA under 2.00 since LeMoyne College accomplished it in 1992 (1.95).
It’s no surprise the dominant and deep staff is the reason the Razorbacks are confident they can win the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional this week. Arkansas may hold the lowest batting average (.260) and fielding percentage (.963) of the four teams in the field, but has the nation’s top pitching staff to lean on.
The group said it plans to perform beginning with tonight’s game, when Astin (4-4, 1.94 ERA) starts opposite Bryant right-hander Peter Kelich (7-4, 2.53 ERA). The regional’s other teams — Kansas State and Wichita State — play at 2 p.m.
“We’re ready for it. We expect it,” Arkansas closer Colby Suggs said Tuesday. “I mean, obviously, we did it last year. I think we had the best ERA out of the regional and the super regionals. So we’re planning on doing that again.”
Suggs is a key part of the group’s foundation. He, Stanek, Astin and Moore were all part of an Arkansas signing class heavy on pitching in 2011. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn knew the new bats in the college game would place the emphasis on pitching, so the Razorbacks allocated more scholarship money to talented arms.
It was a priority, too, because of the departure of the 2010 staff. D.J. Baxendale, Geoffrey Davenport and Randall Fant were the only pitchers with experience returning. So a new crew that also included Nolan Sanburn, Cade Lynch and Trent Daniel (who redshirted in 2011) was going to be key to Arkansas’ success.
Stanek said Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn made sure they learned quickly.
“We knew we had a lot of talent and that helps,” Stanek said. “But going through everything … The first fall with Coach Jorn, he really made it hard on us. He knew we had to grow up fast because we were going to be thrown in the fire right away because of only having like three older guys. If you didn’t throw, you were going to have a long year. I think freshman year we didn’t really know what we were doing.
“We were too dumb to know we weren’t supposed to be good. And weren’t supposed to win 40 games. We were just going out and playing.”
It wasn’t the smoothest year, but Stanek was right. The Razorbacks leaned on Baxendale as its ace and got big contributions from the youngsters. Arkansas reached the 40-win mark before being eliminated in the Tempe (Ariz.) Regional.
But the foundation was laid for a group that has proven it is among the NCAA’s best.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Moore said. “We couldn’t imagine being where we’re at now. But it’s kind of a testament to Coach Jorn and the way he runs things here. It’s about the little things, small details, disciplines of baseball and pitching. Just through him, teaching that to us, we’ve worked hard for the past three years. This is kind of the fruit of the labor we’ve put in for the last two years.”
The Razorbacks reached the College World Series last season because of their staff, which won two 1-0 games against Rice and Baylor. The 1-0 win against the Bears came in the deciding game of the Waco Super Regional, pushing to Hogs to Omaha.
Arkansas ended up surrendering two runs or less in six of its 10 NCAA Tournament games last season. The Razorbacks finished the season with a 2.83 ERA and 10 shutouts, both marks rank second on the school’s single-season charts.
Everyone but Baxendale returned for 2013 and the experience has been evident.
Starters Astin, Stanek and Fant all carry ERAs under 2.00. Suggs has equaled the school’s single-season saves record (12). No pitcher has an ERA above 3.19.
Suggs said the competitiveness between each other has been the reason for it. With so much depth available, Van Horn hasn’t hesitated to go to his bullpen.
“There’s a short leash this year and everybody knows it,” Suggs said. “So everybody has got to go out there whether it’s a start or from the pen and go out there with their best stuff immediately or else they’re out and the next guy is getting his chance. So it puts a little pressure on us. But I mean, we thrive on that.”
The results are impressive. Arkansas has held opponents below five runs in 48 of 57 games this season. The Razorbacks started the postseason strong, too, allowing just five runs (four earned) during its three SEC Tournament games.
“Arkansas is as dominant as anyone on the mound,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said before the SEC Tournament last week. “I think Arkansas sets up extremely well in any type tournament setting. Particularly when you get into a regional or a super regional setting because they can flat-out stuff you on the mound.”
The NCAA Tournament will be the end of the line for seniors Fant and Daniel. It’s likely also the last time Stanek, Suggs, Astin and Moore will pitch for the Razorbacks, too, with each heading into professional baseball. Stanek is considered an early first-round pick in next week’s draft and Suggs should be an early-round pick as well.
They’ve accomplished plenty during their college careers, but it should come as no surprise the ambitious group has more in mind as its final postseason begins.
“I think whatever we’ve accomplished so far won’t mean anything unless we hold the trophy up at the end of the year,” Moore said. “That’s obviously the goal. So if we don’t do that — I won’t say it’s a wasted three years — but it won’t be as fulfilling as it could’ve been if we don’t hold the trophy up at the end of the season.
“That’s the thing that we’ve got left. We won a super. We’ve won a regional. We haven’t hosted, but we want to win the College World Series. That’s our goal.”
If Arkansas finds a way to accomplish that in late June there’s no doubt its pitching staff led the way. The group has thrived in the spotlight since 2011.
“The innings they got, the experience they got and the stuff they have, it was just a matter of time before they put it all together,” Arkansas catcher Jake Wise said. “Last year they had a great year. And this year, somehow, they beat last year. …
“It’s a joy to catch them. The job they do is unbelievable.”