No. 10 Arkansas has something to prove, and the pitching staff to make it happen
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Ryne Stanek is everything you could want in a college ace.
The Arkansas pitcher stands 6-foot-4, controls the mound with his presence and opponents with his stuff, and he's widely projected to be one of the top-10 players taken in this year's Major League Baseball draft.
|ARKANSAS PITCHERS -- 2013 STATS|
|* Min. 10 innings pitched; stats as of 4-12-13|
What's remarkable about Stanek this season isn't his 1.90 ERA in 42.2 innings. It isn't that he's allowed just one run in his past 21 innings for the 10th-ranked Razorbacks or that opposing batters are hitting just .204 against him.
It's that Stanek has been just a relative middle-of-the-road performer this season on a staff that's been nothing short of one of the best in the modern age of college baseball.
His ERA is 10th in the Southeastern Conference among qualifiers, but it's only good for 10th-best on his own staff -- a collection of arms that have combined for an NCAA-leading 1.56 ERA entering a weekend series with LSU.
To put that into perspective, no team in Division I has posted a sub-2.00 ERA for a season since Le Moyne had a 1.95 mark in 1992. Dating to 1973 in the NCAA record book, the closest a team has come to the Razorbacks' current mark is the 1.60 team ERA posted by South Carolina in 1974.
Even with recent changes in bat standards that have lowered the overall ERA in the college game from 5.95 in 2010 to 4.51 last year, what Arkansas is doing is unheard of.
''No, I didn't expect [an ERA less than 2.00],'' Akransas head coach Dave Van Horn. ''I knew we had a good pitching staff. The reason we have that is we have a lot of depth. There are 10 guys out there that we can give the ball to, and if it doesn't go good we can bring in another guy.''
Last season, Arkansas posted the second-best ERA in school history with a 2.83 mark. Ten pitchers returned from that staff this season, a prime reason the Razorbacks began the season ranked No. 1.
None of the returners was more heralded than Stanek, but Van Horn has five newcomers who have been spectacular. Freshman Trey Killian has thrown the most innings of the new group, and he's posted a 2.67 ERA in 30.1 innings -- striking out 27 and holding batters to a .117 average along the way. Those are statistics just about any freshman would be more than pleased with, but Killian is just trying to keep up with his teammates.
Killian's ERA is among the worst on the Arkansas pitching staff. He's good enough to pitch on Friday nights for most teams, but he's relegated to mid-week duty for the Razorbacks.
''The highest ERA isn't very high,'' Arkansas catcher Jake Wise said. ''The highest on our team might be the lowest on a couple of other teams. It's just incredible to work with.''
For all of the Razorbacks' preseason accolades and pitching success this season, it's been anything but a smooth ride for a team that came within one game of the championship series at last year's College World Series. Arkansas (24-11) lost four consecutive games early in the season while in Arizona, and it dropped two of three in its opening SEC series against Mississippi.
Last season's offensive inconsistency hasn't gone away. Going into the series against LSU, Arkansas ranked 107th in the country in runs scored per game (5.8), while its .958 fielding percentage (222nd) hasn't helped, either.
Surprisingly, another issue early was with Stanek, who struggled with control and high pitch counts -- lasting no more than 5.2 innings in any of his first five starts. Since then, however, the right-hander has regained his form. He threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout against South Carolina on March 23, and he threw eight scoreless innings in a win against Alabama last week.
Even with last season's success and the resurgence -- including an 8-5 mark in SEC play after Friday night's 6-2 loss to LSU -- Stanek said he still feels like Arkansas has more to prove.
''Every day we're out here to prove something,'' Stanek said. ''People don't see us as achieving as well as we should, I guess, but we know we're working hard and the game works in funny ways sometimes. I would think it's better to have things go this way now, and we can overcome some things later.''
The Razorbacks went through similar mid-season struggles last season before rebounding and riding their pitching staff to Van Horn's fifth College World Series appearance as a coach, his third at Arkansas. It's a script he hopes to follow again this season, and he has no doubt that he has to pitching staff to do just that -- particularly in a tournament format.
''I think this team will be a team to be reckoned with, if we're fortunate enough to get to a regional,'' Van Horn said. ''We've still got a lot of work ahead of us.''