The Razorbacks had an impressive 2011 campaign, compiling a 40-22 overall record and reaching the Tempe Regional title game. With that team, the Razorbacks were lucky to have one of the nation's better bullpens with Barrett Astin, Nolan Sanburn and others leading the way.
Those two premier arms are back this spring, and they and the bullpen are ready to lead the Razorbacks, who sit at 11-2, back to the College World Series.
"We felt good about the bullpen going into the season," Sanburn said. "We thought this unit would take this group to some pretty extreme places. We think the bullpen is the best part of this team right now. It seems like if someone struggles, the next guy pounds the zone. We always know there's someone out in the bullpen waiting their turn."
The Razorbacks had a very good bullpen in '11. This year's bullpen appears to even better, while talented right-handed pitchers DJ Baxendale and Ryne Stanek headline the weekend rotation.
Like last season, Astin and Sanburn spearhead this excellent bullpen. Astin made 27 appearances last season and had a 2.72 ERA. So far this season, Astin has shown even more improvement. He pitched extremely well at the Houston College Classic last weekend, topping out at 90-92 and showing excellent movement on his off speed pitches.
Numbers-wise, Astin has appeared in five games this spring, striking out 18, walking six and having yet to allow a run in 12 innings. Amazingly, teams are hitting just .154 against him.
There's a reason for his more dominant performances.
"I think I've just made my mechanics more consistent since last season," Astin said. "I worked in the offseason and at the Cape last summer, working to change up my slider and curveball a bit. I wanted to work on hitting my spots better. I think I've been able to pound the zone so far this spring."
Astin put his improved stuff on display last weekend in Houston, where over 100 scouts were in attendance at most of the contests. The talented right-hander worked in a 3-1 win over Texas Tech, striking out four and allowing just one hit in two shutout innings. He also worked in final game of the weekend against Texas, striking out four and tossing two perfect innings.
"I thought Barrett had a lot better stuff [over the weekend], Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "He really had command of everything, his velocity was higher than usual, and his ball was moving all over the place."
While Astin has the best numbers of the two, Sanburn definitely is the more heralded pitcher. A draft-eligible sophomore and ranked our No. 9 prospect in the SEC, Sanburn is having another good season. He has appeared in six games and has a 3.00 ERA in nine innings. He also has struck out 13 and walked two, while teams are hitting .250 against him.
Sanburn's impressive resume goes well beyond statistics. He packs a powerful punch on the mound with a fastball that sat in the 93-96 range last weekend at the Houston College Classic. He also displayed a 76-79 curveball and a refined 81-82 changeup, an improved three-pitch mix that could land him a starting role at some point this season.
"I didn't really throw the changeup much last season, but it's something I really worked on last summer. I've made some real strides with it so far this season," Sanburn said. "I have a little run to it. I wanted it to be a pitch that was about 14-15 mph off my fastball. I've been able to do that and it has turned into a pretty good pitch."
Both pitchers have tweaked their mechanics since last season. Astin is doing a better job of staying back and pitching through the strike zone, while Sanburn is staying back more and using his front arm more effectively to keep the ball down in the strike zone.
"Fixing some mechanical issues was a big thing for me in the offseason," Sanburn said. "I've seen a jump in my velocity because of the things I've fixed. Now, it's just all about continuing to isolate things and solidifying my mechanics. Things will continue to get better and better."
As if Astin and Sanburn aren't an impressive enough dynamic duo, the Razorbacks have plenty of other arms they can rely on this season. Cade Lynch has a 1.46 ERA in five appearances, Michael Gunn has yet to allow a run in four appearances, Ty Wright has yet to allow a run in three appearances, Colby Suggs has a 1.69 ERA in six appearances, and Brandon Moore has a 1.74 ERA in five appearances, two of them starts.
When putting together the pedigree of a national title-type of team, a productive offense, solid starting rotation, and a particularly excellent bullpen are absolute musts.
For Arkansas, it's a check offensively, a check when it comes to the starting rotation, and near perfection when it comes to the bullpen.
"We won last year because of our bullpen, and this one is even better," Van Horn said. "We've got more experience, and we've also added even more young talented arms. I really like our bullpen moving forward."
TEXAS TECH MAKING STRIDES
The Texas Tech transformation is almost complete.
When the Red Raiders hired Dan Spencer, then pitching coach at Oregon State, after winning back-to-back national titles, excitement certainly filled the air. But what the Red Raiders didn't know at the time was that assimilating to Spencer's style of play and recruiting would take some time.
There's no doubt the Red Raiders made some strides in Spencer's first three seasons with the program. Two seasons ago, Tech definitely was in contention for an NCAA postseason berth before hitting the road the final weekend of the regular season and going 0-3 against Nebraska. Then, last season, the Red Raiders compiled a respectable 33-25 overall record, but a 12-15 mark in the Big 12 kept them from reaching their goal to be an NCAA postseason team.
Finally, at least for the time being, the stars seem to be aligning for Texas Tech this season.
The Red Raiders stormed off to an outstanding 8-1 start before going 1-2 at the Houston College Classic last weekend. Though that 1-2 record would qualify as a bad weekend for most, the Red Raiders saw plenty of reasons for optimism. After two hard-fought losses, they finished the tourney by cruising past red-hot Houston, 10-4.
"I really thought our bullpen did a nice job the entire weekend," Spencer said. "I think we need to work on bunt defense. We have some guys playing new positions, so that's something we can figure out pretty quick. I think we need to learn how to throw fastballs on both sides of the plate, and I also think we need to be cleaner in the infield.
Unlike previous campaigns, the Red Raiders have some real flexibility on the mound. Right-hander Duke von Schamann, who put together a solid start in Houston, has blossomed as a legitimate Friday night ace in the Big 12, while Rusty Shellhorn and Shane Broyles both have much upside with good velocities despite just OK performances at the Houston College Classic.
Having three solid starting pitchers has allowed the Red Raiders to keep two of their premier arms -- Trey Masek and John Neely -- in the bullpen.
Neely was one of the nation's premier relievers last season, and so far this season, he has a 4.32 ERA in five appearances and 8 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, Masek established himself as a solid starting pitcher last season, but Spencer surprised some when he moved the talented sophomore right-hander to the bullpen this season.
In that new role, Masek has appeared in six games and has a 0.87 ERA in 10 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 15 and walked two, and teams are hitting him at a .194 clip.
"In the way we do things, Trey being moved to the bullpen is a promotion," Spencer said. "We want to use him more than once a weekend. We also have the ability to extend him if we need to. We want our toughest guys pitching during crunch time. That's why he's in the bullpen, but it also has helped that our starting pitching has been solid."
The Red Raiders also are in good shape at the plate. Jamodrick McGruder and Barrett Barnes are two of the nation's most versatile players atop the lineup, while the return of Scott LeJeune from injury is a huge shot in the arm for this club. Meanwhile, Tim Proudfoot has risen to the occasion so far this season, playing a good shortstop and hitting .319 with 10 RBIs.
Tech still must do well in Big 12 play to finally reach its goal -- the NCAA postseason. But there's no question Spencer has this program believing again.
The transformation continues.
AROUND THE NATION
* TCU has had issues staying healthy so far this season, and it almost had another disaster take place on Tuesday night against Baylor when catcher Josh Elander took a foul ball off his arm. Elander was removed from the game and forced to have X-rays, the result fortunately good for the Frogs, as they turned out to be negative. The Frogs were without five regular players on Tuesday, including outfielder Kyle Von Tungeln, who will miss some time because of a mild concussion.
* Texas State has been on an amazing roll from a pitching standpoint in the past week, entering Tuesday's contest against Rice having thrown 50 1/3 scoreless innings of baseball. The NCAA record is 64 straight scoreless frames, set by Arizona State in 1972. The Bobcats got all the way to the eighth inning before allowing a run to the Owls, ending the streak at 57 2/3 innings. Despite the disappointment of the streak ending, the Bobcats still won the contest 3-2, adding yet another quality win to their already-impressive resume.
* Florida Atlantic received some bad news last week when it was revealed No. 2 starting pitcher Jeremy Strawn would miss the season because of an injury. Now, it's double trouble for the Owls, who will be without outfielder Alex Hudak for at least three-to-four weeks because of a fractured ankle. Hudak was hitting well over .400 for the Owls. Interestingly, the Owls haven't played well since his departure from the lineup. They struggled against Princeton over the weekend and lost a 16-1 decision to top-ranked Florida in the midweek.
* Texas has struggled immensely to begin the 2012 campaign, and had a scare over the weekend down in Houston when stud closer Corey Knebel missed the entire weekend because of a twinge he felt in his back. Fortunately for Texas, Knebel returned to the mound Tuesday against Dallas Baptist, recording a strikeout in an inning of work to close out the game. The Longhorns will continue to monitor Knebel's back, but things look good at this point.
* San Francisco coach Nino Giarratano has had a great deal of success throughout his coaching career, and reached a milestone last Friday when he notched his 374th West Coast Conference victory, becoming the winningest coach in Dons history by surpassing Dante Benedetti for the honor. He now ranks sixth place in all-time WCC wins ... While on the topic of milestones, Pittsburgh coach Joe Jordano became the all-time wins leader in program history with a win over Coastal Carolina last week. It was his 403rd victory with the Panthers, surpassing the previous mark held by long-time coach Bobby Lewis, who ran the program from 1955-90.
* The NCAA typically doesn't release the statistics database until after the NCAA basketball tournament in April, but the organization apparently is on the ball this spring. The NCAA released the first set of statistics this week. You can view a variety of categories, here.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org