FAYETTEVILLE — Catcher Jake Wise has found a way to play through a plethora of aches and pains during his Arkansas baseball career.
Very little has kept the rugged senior off the field. In fact, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said his reliable veteran has been determined to catch “every game, every inning” for the Razorbacks this season. He doesn’t like to be out of the lineup.
So it’s understandable Wise is doing everything he can to make sure he’s on the field for the start of Arkansas’ final home series in Baum Stadium this season. But Wise also knows it’s out of his hands as he tries to recover from last week’s concussion.
“I’ve played through a bunch of injuries since I’ve been here,” Wise said. “So playing through injuries really isn’t a problem for me. But when it comes to the head, you can’t mess with it because it’s one of those crazy things. So for me, I’m just going to leave up to the doctors and hopefully it all comes out well.”
The Razorbacks (30-20, 11-13 in SEC) will find out if he’ll be behind the plate tonight, when they open a three-game series against 20th-ranked Texas A&M (30-19, 12-12) in Baum Stadium at 6:35. Wise, who is Arkansas lone senior, has been a mainstay during conference games but may be relegated to sitting in the dugout if he isn’t cleared to play by Arkansas’ medical staff.
It also would send Arkansas into a critical series without a key cog. Wise may only be hitting .170 this season, but his work behind the plate has been a big reason for the Razorbacks success. In fact, starting pitchers Trey Killian and Chris Oliver both said Wise has been vital to Arkansas’ staff this season.
“He’s the sole reason we do what we do out there,” Killian said. “He sees what the hitters are looking for. He calls the right pitches. And obviously he throws a lot of runners out when you let them on base so that’s always good.”
Killian and the Arkansas pitching staff may not have a choice if Wise isn’t cleared.
The catcher left last Saturday’s loss at Ole Miss after a collision and has spent the past several days working through concussion tests. Wise said he doesn’t remember much from the game or the day and continued to have symptoms of a concussion earlier this week. But he has made progress since.
Van Horn said Arkansas is optimistic after the past couple of days. But they’re remaining cautious as well and won’t rush him back on the field.
“I think everything is good,” Van Horn said. “He just needs to be able to swing the bat, bounce around, run without any issues. I think he passed everything for the most part. But the other day, after he worked out a little bit or whatever they ran him through, it bothered him a little bit. So they had to wait another 24 hours. (Today) will be 2 ½ days later so we’ll see how it goes.”
Wise’s absence would create a catching quandary for the Razorbacks.
Van Horn said backup Blake Baxendale — who has been a regular in the lineup as a designated hitter lately — is not available for the weekend series because of the hamstring injury he suffered Sunday. So Arkansas faces two options without Wise: start outfielders Tyler Spoon or K.J. Wilkerson or pull the redshirt off Alex Gosser.
Van Horn said he has his plan in place if Wise is unable to play.
“We’re probably going to go with Gosser,” Van Horn said. “It’s a tough call for me. If I was going to do that I probably would’ve done it 20 games ago. We’ve been fighting it. It’s just strange the way it’s all gone down. But we’ve got to try to win and he wants to play. So that’s what we have to do if that’s what we need to do.”
Arkansas, which has lost two straight SEC series, enters the important weekend with questions on the mound as well because of Jalen Beeks’ sore elbow.
Van Horn said the junior — who leads the team in innings pitched (76 2/3) and is tied for the lead in starts (12) — will not pitch against Texas A&M and may miss the season-ending series at Missouri as well. Killian will remain in his regular spot in the rotation tonight, while Oliver slides into the Saturday role.
Sunday’s starter will be determined later, but left-hander Colin Poche (3-0, 1.60 ERA) is the leading candidate. Van Horn said it will be Poche or a reliever.
“I think we’ll be OK,” Killian said. “We’ve got guys that started midweek that we can throw out there if we need to or we’ve got guys out of the pen that can go extended innings. We can run one of those guys out there to start.”
Arkansas is hopeful the new weekend starter will be pitching to Wise by then.
The catcher has started 96 of Arkansas’ 111 games behind the plate the past two seasons. He wasn’t expecting to be back with the Razorbacks this fall, but a Tommy John injury late last year postponed his plans to begin a pro baseball career.
Wise has felt better at the plate lately, too, after starting the season in a frustrating slump. He has played a big part in an improved lineup that must continue to produce if Arkansas reaches the NCAA Tournament.
But his biggest value has been his defense and work with the pitching staff. Wise leads the SEC with five pickoffs and has thrown out 20 of 40 runners trying to steal, earning the admiration of teammates for his defensive performance.
“He’s probably the catcher that every one of our pitchers feels the most comfortable back there with,” Oliver said. “This is my third year here, and I wouldn’t want anybody else back there. … I definitely want him to go out on a good note. He’s one of the better guys in that locker room personality-wise.
“I don’t think it would be right if he didn’t play this weekend.”
Wise agreed it’s “unfortunate” timing to be questionable for his final home series because of the concussion. Especially with Arkansas still needing a strong finish to secure a spot in the SEC Tournament and an NCAA Regional.
But he was optimistic Thursday that he’ll be cleared for his final home series.
“I’m hopeful,” Wise said. “I feel good. I’ve done well on everything I’ve done the past couple of days, so I’m just looking forward to seeing the doctors and taking a few tests (this) morning and see how it goes.”