FAYETTEVILLE – Those capable of closing put pressure on those starting. That’s the essential key for Arkansas during this weekend’s Super Regional series against No. 8 national seed Missouri State at sold-out Baum Stadium.
Want to finish the final leg on the “Road to Omaha” and play for a national championship at the College World Series?
For that to happen, the Razorbacks (38-22) must get enough from their starters in the best-of-three showdown against the Bears (48-10) to make Zach Jackson a factor at the back end of the games.
“Physically he’s stronger,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “No doubt about that. But mentally, he believes in himself. He knows he’s the guy. He feels like he is the difference-maker, and he is.”
For the Razorbacks, there’s no understating the importance of their 6-foot-4, 215-pound closer from Berryhill, Okla.
An All-SEC selection, Jackson enters the Super Regional 5-0 with eight saves, 2.08 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 52 innings. Teams are batting just .189 against the big right-hander. And it’s hard to believe Arkansas would be in this position without him.
As the Razorbacks swept their way to the Stillwater Regional title, Jackson was a factor in each game as Arkansas beat Oral Roberts (8-6), Oklahoma State (7-5) and St. John’s (4-3).
In his three appearances, Jackson worked four total innings, allowed just one hit, one unearned run and posted 10 strikeouts while picking up two saves.
Teammate Joe Serrano was named the tournament MVP, batting .500 in Stillwater with the game-winning RBI groundout in the ninth inning of the title game against St. John’s, but the honor just as easily could have belonged to Jackson.
“We felt like he was going to throw the ball 90 mph-plus and it jumped up there pretty good after his freshman year,” Van Horn said. “When you have talent and you’re smart, and you work hard and you listen, you’re coachable, you’re going to get better.
“He’s gotten a lot better.”
So with Jackson — who went 2-3 with a 2.53 ERA, two saves and 42 strikeouts in 421/3 innings as a freshman — at the back end, the key for Arkansas starts up front.
In Friday’s opener at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN2, Arkansas junior right-hander Trey Killian (2-4, 4.76), the Norfork native and Mountain Home High graduate, gets the toughest draw of the series, facing Missouri State’s star left-hander Jon Harris (8-1, 1.85).
Killian has been spotty for the Razorbacks, looking brilliant in the SEC Tournament against Tennessee, giving up just one run in 7.2 innings, and then touched for five runs and eight hits over 5.0 innings by Oral Roberts in Stillwater.
Missouri State isn’t too shabby on the back end with sophomore closer Bryan Young. The right-hander was an All-Missouri Valley Conference pick after going 7-0 with 16 saves. He has 51 strikeouts in 41.1 innings and opponents are batting just .143 off him.
“What jumps out at you are their pro prospect pitchers,” Van Horn said with Harris, Saturday starter Matt Hall (11-1, 2.17) and Young among the Bears’ elite arms.
Freshman Keaton McKinney (6-1, 3.21) will start for the Razorbacks on Saturday, while a possible matchup in the if-necessary game Sunday would be the Hogs’ Jackson Lowery (7-1, 3.22) against the Bears’ Jordan Knutson (6-1, 3.06).
By anyone’s measure, Missouri State has the deeper pitching staff. The Bears, however, did not have luck on their side, losing the Super Regional host rights because of a scheduling conflict at Hammons Field, where they share the stadium with the Double-A Springfield Cardinals.
“We’re going down there with a chip on our shoulder, for sure,” said shortstop Joey Hawkins of the Bears, who were allotted just 600 tickets for each game at Baum (capacity 10,737). “I think they kind of look at us as the small school from Springfield that’s not Mizzou, but we’re the eighth team in the country. We have a confident group heading to Fayetteville.”
NCAA Super Regional
Arkansas vs. Missouri State
• What: Best-of-three series
• When: Friday, 3:30 p.m.; Saturday, 1 p.m.; Sunday (if necessary), 2 p.m.
• Where: Baum Stadium, Fayetteville
• Records: No. 8 national seed Missouri State 48-10; Arkansas 38-22
• TV/Radio: Friday/Saturday ESPN2, Sunday ESPN2 or ESPNU; ESPN Arkansas, 104.3 FM
• At Stake: Winner advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., June 13-24
The expected pitching matchups this weekend (Arkansas listed first):
• Friday: RHP Trey Killian (2-4, 4.76) vs. RHP Jon Harris (8-1, 1.85)
• Saturday: RHP Keaton McKinney (6-1, 3.21) vs. LHP Matt Hall (11-2, 2.17)
• Sunday: RHP Jackson Lowery (7-1, 3.22) vs. LHP Jordan Knutson (6-1, 3.06)