FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn has stuck with the same starting rotation of Barrett Astin, Ryne Stanek and Randall Fant the past nine weeks.
He sees no reason to change it for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Van Horn said Arkansas will start Astin (4-4, 2.02 ERA) during its SEC Tournament opener in Hoover, Ala., on Wednesday morning. Astin will face either No. 6 seed Ole Miss or No. 11 Kentucky, who play in a single-elimination game during the 12-team tournament opening round today.
The decision puts the junior on the mound on short rest for the second straight week after throwing 93 pitches during a 3-0 loss at Auburn last Thursday. But Van Horn said Astin wants the ball as the Razorbacks (35-19, 18-11 in SEC) try to win their SEC Tournament opener for the first time since 2009 and keep their dimming hopes of hosting an NCAA Regional alive.
“He’s probably, obviously, our freshest starter,” Van Horn said Monday morning. “It will give him about five days rest. … He’ll be good to go. He wants to pitch.”
Astin allowed three runs - all unearned - on nine hits in 6 1/3 innings in his last start. He didn’t start in the Razorbacks’ weekend series against Ole Miss in March, but came out of the bullpen to allow one run on four hits in 2 2/3 innings during the finale. Astin started and won the series opener at Kentucky earlier this month, allowing one run on five hits in 5 2/3 innings in Arkansas’ 2-1 victory.
The SEC Tournament start will be the first of Astin’s career. The right-hander said he and the rest of the starting rotation are prepared for solid outings.
“Being pushed up a day, I think it helps me,” Astin said. “The past two weeks I’ve felt just as fresh now as I do on a six-day rest as I do on a five-day rest. I think Stanek feels the same way and I know Fant feels the same way too. We’re ready to go.”
Stanek (8-2, 1.54 ERA) — who has been dominant against SEC opponents this season with a 7-1 record and 0.97 ERA) — will start Arkansas’ second game of the SEC Tournament on Thursday. Fant (5-1, 2.08 ERA) will be on the mound for the third game if Arkansas is still playing in the two-loss elimination tournament.
Fant threw just 53 pitches in 2 1/3 innings during Saturday’s loss at Auburn.
“Fant had his first bad outing probably in two months,” Van Horn said. “He just did not throw strikes, which is really unusual for him this year. So he should be good to go. I guess if you just go on pitch count he would be available game two if we decided to go that way. As of right now, I don’t see anything changing.”
The trio of starters will be key to Arkansas’ success in the pitching-friendly park this week. The Razorbacks went 0-2 at the SEC Tournament last season and the program has never won the championship since entering the conference in 1992.
Arkansas came closest in 2007 and 1999 after reaching the SEC Tournament championship game. But a quick exit has been the norm during Van Horn’s 10-year tenure. Arkansas has gone 0-2 five of the nine times it has been in the field.
Van Horn said the Razorbacks are hoping for more success this week, but won’t stress its pitching staff as it prepares for next week’s NCAA Regionals. Arkansas’ 0-2 performance last year was followed by a run to the College World Series.
“We want to win it,” Van Horn said. “There’s no doubt about it. Any time you step on the field you want to win the game. You don’t want to go home. … But I think you don’t want to, obviously, you don’t want to burn yourself out or hurt people. And when I’m talking about hurt people, create sore arms and put yourself at a disadvantage if you’re playing in a regional the next weekend. So, we’re going to go out there and do everything we can to win game one and then go from there.”
Van Horn is optimistic Arkansas’ lineup could be back at full strength, too, after playing without outfielder Joe Serrano (strained groin) and third baseman Jacob Mahan (strained quadriceps) for most of the Auburn series.
The Razorbacks struggled without both Mahan (.291) and Serrano (.280), who rank second and fourth on the team in batting. Arkansas is hitting .261 as a team after the regular season, which ranks 11th in the conference.
“I think by Wednesday morning, I’m feeling like those guys will be in the lineup,” Van Horn said. “So I haven’t really looked past that. If one of them can’t go, we’ll go in with the usual guys and do the best we can.”
Arkansas needs wins to keep its fading hopes of hosting an NCAA Regional alive.
The Razorbacks are not projected to be among the 16 teams selected to host an NCAA Regional after losing its final series at Auburn. Arkansas won seven of its 10 conference series this season and finished third in the SEC’s standings, but a low RPI casts a dark cloud over the Razorbacks hopes of playing at Baum Stadium again.
Arkansas outfielder Brian Anderson said players still believe they have a shot. But he also acknowledged Arkansas will be comfortable no matter what happens.
“I think it depends on how we do this week,” Anderson said. “But it’s really not that big of a deal. We’re just as good away as we are at home. I would love to play in front of the Baum Stadium crowd and I know these seniors and draft-eligible juniors would love to play there one more time. So from that standpoint it would be a great deal to host, but we’re still confident we can get it done on the road.”
The good news for Arkansas: Van Horn knows his team has enough pitching depth to make it through four or five games this week. So he’s confident Arkansas can make a run at the SEC championship before moving into NCAA Regionals.
“We’re going to try to win,” Van Horn said about the SEC Tournament. “Obviously, if we win a couple of games that will probably help us (with regionals). If we don’t, it definitely could hurt us. But, you know, wherever we have to play we’ll be ready to play in that regional. We’re just looking forward to playing in this tournament now.”