Wednesday, May 29, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Hogs visit Manhattan, face Bryant in regional

Special to The Leader

FAYETTEVILLE – Last year some smirked that Stony Brook sounded more like a day camp than a college baseball team.

The smirks were erased by respect when the Seawolves of South Hampton, N.Y. advanced all the way to the College World Series.

Barrett Astin, the Arkansas Razorbacks’ junior right-hander from Forrest City, bears Stony Brook in mind knowing he starts Arkansas’ Manhattan, Kan. regional opener against Bryant on Friday.

Bryant, Ark. is the Bryant that comes to mind for most in Arkansas.

But Bryant University of Smithfield, R.I., fields the Northeast Conference champion Bulldogs that just went 44-14-1 this season under third-year coach Steve Owens.

“Every team in the postseason is good,” Astin said. “You look at last year at Stony Brook – no one knew anything about them and they were one of the hottest teams in the country. It’s the same thing with Bryant. They can hit. They can pitch. They can field. They can be just as good as anybody.”

Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn also respects the Bryant Bulldogs. That’s why he’s keeping the same rotation he used on SEC weekends. He will start Astin, 4-4, 1.94, in the opener against Bryant, with junior right-hander Ryne Stanek, 9-2, 1.40 ERA, pitching Saturday against either Kansas State or Wichita State,  and senior lefty Randall Fant, 5-1, 1.92 pitching Sunday if the Hogs have won at least a game.

Some casual observers may think Van Horn glosses over Bryant by not starting Preseason All-American Stanek, but Van Horn has used the Astin-Stanek-Fant order most of the season.

“We’re not looking past Bryant by any means,” Van Horn said Monday.  “If that was the case, I’d pick one of those relievers and start them and I don’t feel good about doing that at all. This is a team that is there for a reason. They scored a lot of runs in their conference tournament.”

Although Stanek made last week’s SEC Tournament team in Hoover, Ala. and Astin did not, Astin pitched well. He was solid in Wednesday’s five-hit, eight-inning no-decision in the 10-inning game that Arkansas won, 2-1 over Ole Miss. Stanek threw Thursday’s six-hitter for eight innings in the 4-1 victory over LSU.

In his final regular season start, Astin was charged with a 3-0 defeat despite  yielding no earned runs.

“Astin’s last two outings have been outstanding,” Van Horn said Monday. “He had one little bad inning at Auburn and got through it and pitched us late in the game. He might have got a no-decision but that’s the way it goes. But his outing in the conference tournament has been as good as he’s been. He gave us eight innings, could have given us a ninth, but I pulled him after that. I think he had around 90 pitches or something. I feel good about him going out there. I know he’s going to throw strikes and he’s going to get us into the game.”

Astin was Arkansas’ best relief pitcher in 2011 and 2012, then moved to the SEC starting rotation since the second SEC series of the 2013 season.

“My second half of the season was a lot better than my first half.  We are just trying to build off of that,” Astin said. “The weather is warming up and I am getting settled in as a starter.  We are just rolling right now. I have had two good outings.”

Those two outings were not only good but great, though he had nothing but a loss and no-decision to show for them on his record.

“I don’t really worry about wins and losses for me,” Astin said. “As long as the team wins and puts us in a good position to win Friday night I am good with that.”