FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas closer Colby Suggs got off to a slow start because of an oblique injury that affected him the first few weeks of the 2013 season.
But it hasn’t kept Suggs from earning a spot in Arkansas’ record books.
Suggs picked up his 12th save during Arkansas’ 4-1 win against LSU in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, equaling the school’s single-season record.
The hard-throwing right-hander tied the mark held by Phillip Stidham (1989) and Tim Deitz (1985). Suggs can move past both with a save during the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional. Arkansas (37-20) plays Bryant (44-16-1) at 7 tonight.
“It would mean a lot,” Suggs said. “Any time a closer can get a save, it means the team is winning. So obviously, I like going out there and closing out games and being the guy to finish them off. But as far as the saves record, it’s pretty cool.”
It didn’t look like Suggs was going to be within reach of the mark after struggling early on. He had trouble with his velocity the first few weeks of the season, which was a by-product of the injury. But Suggs also had command issues, walking a rash of batters and couldn’t close the door on opponents in pre-conference games.
He didn’t panic. Suggs eventually settled in when it mattered most, baffling opponents when Southeastern Conference play began.
Suggs led all SEC closers with 10 saves during conference play. He allowed one earned run in 13 appearances, recording 18 strikeouts with six walks.
Suggs didn’t waste any time in his last appearance, retiring all three batters he faced on 13 pitches to secure the win against LSU last Thursday.
“I’ve felt great,” Suggs said about his SEC success. “I feel like I’m improving every week with my location and my breaking ball. Obviously, velocity is there now as opposed to earlier in the season. I’m feeling great, getting stronger each and every day. So I’m really excited to see what we can do down the stretch.”
The Razorbacks are confident they know what will happen. Their success will continue if they can carry the lead into the ninth inning with Suggs on the mound.
“He started a little slow with his side problem, but he’s gotten over that,” catcher Jake Wise said. “The stuff he has is hard to hit. I know guys are going up there, and they know what he has, and they still don’t stand a chance. I’m excited every time he gets on the mound because I know we’re going to get his best focus and best stuff.”
Arkansas familiarized itself with Kansas State’s field during a practice session at Tointon Family Stadium on Thursday. The Wildcats play on a synthetic field, which is something the Razorbacks haven’t had any experience with this season.
Coach Dave Van Horn said the field plays faster, which should test an infield that endured its share of defensive issues throughout the season. So Van Horn plans to have his best defensive infield in the lineup. Freshman Jordan Farris will play second base and junior Dominic Ficociello will slide back to first.
“It could be very lively so we need to be quicker in the middle,” Van Horn said.
A successful weekend on the turf could help for the next round. The Manhattan Regional is paired with the Corvallis (Ore.) Regional, which is being hosted by No. 4 national seed Oregon State. The Beavers also play on a synthetic field.
“Really for the infielders, it’s about finding the hops,” Arkansas sophomore Brian Anderson said. “The ball slows down a little bit, but it hops higher. In the outfield, it really won’t affect us much, except the ball is going to bounce when it hits. So when you go to cut off a ball, it might bounce a little higher than you’d expect.”
More than a cold
Wise said his mom gave him a hard time last week. She couldn’t understand how her son could miss the start of postseason play because of a severe cold.
She didn’t exactly get the whole story from her son.
“I didn’t want to tell her I had walking pneumonia,” Wise said. “She worries a lot. She called me and said you missed the game for a cold? That’s not the son I raised.
“So finally I said, ‘No, mom. I’ve got walking pneumonia.’”
Wise said he started feeling bad on the team’s bus trip from Auburn, Ala., to Hoover for the SEC Tournament. The symptoms included a fever and body aches. The prognosis scared Wise initially because postseason play was beginning, but the junior was assured he wouldn’t miss much time with medication and rest.
Wise didn’t play in the first game of the SEC Tournament and made a late appearance in the second game. He started and played throughout the LSU loss.
“I’m finally getting healthy,” Wise said Tuesday. “Hopefully I don’t get sick again.”
The Manhattan Regional will be a homecoming, of sorts, for Arkansas pitcher Ryne Stanek. The junior is from Overland Park, which is 120 miles from Manhattan.
“I’m going to have a bunch of family up there watching the series,” Stanek said. “And half of my high school goes to K-State. So it’s kind of funny. I’m going to see a lot of my buddies. But I really don’t have a problem going up there.”
Stanek, who was named first-team All-SEC earlier this week, is scheduled to start the second game of the regional. It means Stanek will take the mound with a chance to pitch the Razorbacks into a regional final or to avoid elimination.
“In a bigger game, I’m excited to get the ball and try to get us to the regional championship game, or keep us from elimination, whatever the case may be,” Stanek said. “I’m out there to do my job and try to win ball games.”
Stanek was named a second-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball on Thursday.
The junior earned the honor after going 9-2 with a 1.40 ERA in 15 starts. Stanek was at his best against conference opponents, going 8-1 with a 0.86 ERA in 11 starts.
It’s the second straight season Stanek has earned All-America honors. He was named an honorable mention All-American by College Baseball Insider in 2012.
Arkansas and Kansas State have never met in the NCAA Tournament, but the two have played in the same NCAA Regional.
The Wildcats were the No. 3 seed for the Fayetteville Regional in 2010. Kansas State lost its opener to No. 2 seed Washington State and beat No. 4 Grambling to stay alive. The Wildcats were eliminated after their second loss to the Cougars.
Arkansas and Wichita State have met eight times in the NCAA Tournament, including two games in the 1989 College World Series. The Razorbacks also played the Shockers three times in the 2004 Fayetteville Regional, rebounding from an early loss to beat Wichita State twice in one day to advance to a Super Regional.