Starting role serves Astin well


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas junior Barrett Astin has held a variety of duties during his collegiate pitching career.

The Forrest City native worked as the Razorbacks’ closer, recording the program’s second-highest single-season save total in 2012 (11). He has been the first pitcher called out of the bullpen, helping the Hogs in long relief. Astin has even been a spot starter with six in his 59 appearances heading into the 2013 season.

But Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn told Astin he needed him in a new role several weeks ago. His latest performance is proof the right-hander is adapting well.

“He’s our Friday night starter,” Arkansas outfielder Tyler Spoon said. “He’s getting in that role and pitching well like he always has. It’s great to have him on Friday night.”

Astin will start once again when the 14th-ranked Razorbacks (30-15, 13-7 in SEC) open a three-game series at Kentucky (26-17, 9-12 in SEC) tonight at 5:30 p.m. The junior will be first to take the mound for the nation’s best staff, trying to help Arkansas build on its 7-1 record in conference road games.

He’s more than capable of throwing a career-best eight scoreless innings in last Friday’s 2-0 win at Georgia. Astin struck out eight, allowed four hits and was named the SEC’s pitcher of the week for his efforts. Astin also proved he’s a capable starter after spending most of his career helping the Hogs out of the bullpen.

“I think he’s really settled into being a starter whether he’s pitching on Friday or Sunday,” Van Horn said. “I don’t think it matters to him. He just wanted to start. And we have a good enough bullpen where we can do that and it’s been a major plus.”

Arkansas has had success on Friday nights as well. A slow start to a weekend series was a problem for the Razorbacks last season. Arkansas isn’t perfect with Astin on the mound, but a 4-2 mark during his Friday starts has been a big improvement.

Junior Ryne Stanek remains Arkansas’ big-name pitcher in his Saturday role, too, but Astin has brought steadiness and grit to Fridays. He’s also humble about it. Astin was asked about moving to the Friday night role and his response was predictable.

Astin (3-2, 2.02 ERA) did little more than shrug his shoulders at the thought.

“Honestly, it doesn’t mean that much,” Astin said. “It’s just another weekend starting spot. Either of our guys could be a Friday night guy. (Ryne) is your typical Friday night guy. He has lights out stuff. He has a power arm. That’s what people come to see. But it’s just all about getting outs and getting wins.”

Astin did just that in throwing eight scoreless innings last week.

Endurance had been an understandable issue for the long-time reliever, who hit the wall in the fifth or sixth inning most of this season. But after surviving a rocky first inning at Georgia — which included the pitcher gritting his teeth to work his way through a cracked fingernail on his right index finger — Astin settled in.

The eight innings pitched shattered his previous career high (6 innings). Arkansas catcher Jake Wise said Astin had some of his best stuff throughout the game as well.

“It was one of my favorite starts for him, because he started off a little rocky, and it showed he’s a harder worker and he was able to battle through it,” Astin said. “He got through the first inning and was able to settle down and work from there.

“He had all his pitches. His location wasn’t very good the first inning, and then he went back in and made a little adjustment, and he had all four pitches working to both sides of the plate to lefties and righties.”

Astin thought it was a big performance for another reason.

He was able to keep Arkansas’ bullpen rested by going deep into the game.

“As a starter you want to go five, six, seven innings just to save your bullpen for the rest of the weekend,” Astin said. “Especially on Friday night. I think series are won or lost on Friday night depending on how much you had to use your bullpen.

“We were able to save it last weekend.”

His approach will be the same against Kentucky. The Razorbacks need wins the final three weeks to remain in the conversation for an NCAA Regional host site. Astin can help Arkansas move one game closer to that goal with his performance.

He’s prepared to face a Kentucky team that ranks 12th in the conference in hitting (.259), but is notorious for crowding the plate. The Wildcats have been hit by 71 pitches in 43 games this season. Kentucky leads the SEC in the category.

But Astin said he’s not concerned.

“Pitching inside is just mental,” Astin said. “If somebody is on the plate and you can’t pitch inside, that’s your own fault. You have to work on that in your game.”

Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn is comfortable, too. He said the Razorbacks are confident the veteran pitcher — who has performed in different roles for the Hogs throughout his career — will continue to shine as a Friday night starter.

“He’s been pretty steady,” Jorn said. “He’s been a steady-Eddie kid for three years. I expect the same approach, the same work habits, the same competitiveness, the same preparation. With his talent and makeup, he should be fine. He should be able to continue on and do us a good job.”

No. 14 Arkansas (30-15) at No. 23 Kentucky (26-17)

• When: Friday at 5:30 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m., Sunday at 12 p.m.

• Where: Cliff Hagan Stadium, Lexington, Ky.

• TV: Sunday – Cox Sports Television

• Radio: KABZ-FM 103.7

• SEC records: Arkansas 13-7; Kentucky 9-12