With the arrival of the Arkansas pitching staff at Carolina Stadium this weekend, the arms race got ratcheted up.
The No. 21 Razorbacks enter the series against the No. 5 Gamecocks with the SEC’s lowest ERA at 1.81 while holding opposing teams to a .199 batting average through the first 21 games.
They are fronted by hard-throwing right-hander Ryne Stanek, who’s projected by Baseball America as the No. 5 prospect for the MLB draft in June. Stanek, who will start Saturday’s game, teamed last season with right-handed closer Barrett Astin, who will start Friday’s game, to snap USC’s record 22-game NCAA tournament winning streak in a 2-1 win at the College World Series.
Left-hander Randall Fant will start Sunday’s game, while the Razorbacks also feature one of the nation’s top bullpen arms in another hard-throwing righty, Colby Suggs. In Baseball America’s preseason ranking of the SEC’s Top 20 prospects for this summer’s draft, Stanek was No. 1, Suggs was No. 6, Astin was No. 14, and Fant was No. 20.
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“You can make a case that it’s three Friday night guys,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “They’re very, very deep. It’s a staff that reminds you of those Florida staffs that were so good. I don’t know, if you get to the bullpen, that there’ll be a chink in their armor.”
Stanek and Suggs, who has struggled with his control this season, have the ability to throw in the mid-90s and flash high-90s numbers. Astin can throw low-90s with great off-speed stuff and strong command. Fant is more of a crafty lefty type who can change speeds and keep hitters off-balance.
USC first baseman LB Dantzler, who leads the team with a .351 average, seven homers and 24 RBIs, looks forward to the challenge.
“That’s the kind of guys you want to face,” Dantzler said. “If you keep playing baseball long enough, those are the guys you run into. They’re why you play the game. You want to be in this atmosphere at this level playing against the best competition to see how you can do.”
Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn, who served as the Capital City Bombers pitching coach in 1993-94 with manager Ron Washington, appreciates having a corps of live arms. But he knows it still comes down to those pitchers being able to locate their fastballs, work out of jams, and keep hitters guessing.
“If you’re going to pitch and be successful, you’re going to have to make pitches regardless of what kind of stuff you’ve got,” Jorn said.
The Razorbacks also have two more right-handers in Trey Killian and Brandon Moore providing many excellent innings.
“It’s not like they’re going to run out of pitching as the weekend goes along,” USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers said. “They’re going to keep running guys out there who have quality experience and quality arms.”
Meyers, however, has some good arms on his side as well, including senior-left-handers Nolan Belcher, the Saturday starter, and Tyler Webb, the team’s closer, and sophomore right-hander Evan Beal, the Friday starter. The Gamecocks have posted a 2.18 ERA and .215 opposing-team batting average.
Those kind of pitching matchups are what make the SEC unique.
“It is like running a gauntlet. Between Arkansas, Vanderbilt, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Kentucky, you’re looking at seven of college baseball’s elite pitching staffs,” Baseball America national collegiate writer Aaron Fitt said. “There’s no question that the SEC is a breeding ground for premium pitching talent. Every year, the league produces some of the top pitching prospects in the draft, and this year is no different.”
Jorn agrees with that, citing the fact that his staff faced the Ole Miss staff (2.42 ERA) last weekend and goes up against the Mississippi State staff (2.27 ERA) next weekend. In the meantime, he prepares for another set of games against USC like the two teams played in the 2012 CWS, when Arkansas won the first one 2-1, and the Gamecocks battled back to win 2-0 and 3-2 to eliminate the Razorbacks.
“South Carolina has always had guys on the mound who are going to compete, be able to locate, change speeds, throw strikes and throw more than one pitch for a strike,” Jorn said. “They might bend a little bit, but they usually don’t break. They’re going to grind it out.”
Meyers understands the next three games could look a whole lot like those tightly contested CWS games, in which every pitch is magnified.
“It comes down to a key play or a key at-bat,” Meyers said. “That’s what you anticipate going into almost every SEC weekend. You have to be prepared for that. Everybody has got a guy who can have a really good day and shut an offense down. You have to be on top of your game and expect to be in a close one.”
Baseball pregame: USC vs. Arkansas
WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 3:15 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Carolina Stadium
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5
TELEVISION: Fox Sports Carolinas, Saturday
SERIES: Arkansas leads 32-28
LAST MEETING: USC won two-of-three in the regular season and two-of-three in the College World Series in 2012
RECORDS: USC (18-3, 2-1 SEC); Arkansas (14-7, 1-2)
RANKINGS: USC is No. 5 and Arkansas is No. 21 in Baseball America
PITCHING MATCHUPS: Friday, USC RHP Evan Beal, Soph., 2-0, 0.56 vs. Arkansas RHP Barrett Astin, Jr., 1-1, 1.90; Saturday, USC LHP Nolan Belcher, Sr., 4-1, 1.25 vs. Arkansas RHP Ryne Stanek, Jr., 1-1, 3.32; Sunday, USC TBA vs. Arkansas LHP Randall Fant, Sr., 1-0, 1.12
NOTES: USC SS Joey Pankake has reached base safely in 13 consecutive games. Arkansas RF Tyler Spoon leads the team with a .346 BA, 3 HR and 26 RBIs. The offensive numbers are similar for both teams in BA (USC .286, Arkansas .284), runs (USC 139, Arkansas 135), hits (USC 193, Arkansas 200), walks (USC 108, Arkansas 100), strikeouts (USC 123, Arkansas 124) and stolen bases (USC 24, Arkansas 25).