Leading 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth, Chris Curry made a call to the bullpen to relieve his starting pitcher.
The substitution was simple. So was its result.
Two innings and two relief pitchers later, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock preserved its 2-1 victory over then-No. 22 Louisiana Tech on April 4.
Curry, the UALR head coach, said pitching is the major reason UALR (17-14, 6-5 Sun Belt Conference) is second in the West Division.
Last season, when UALR finished 21-34 overall, the Trojans had a team ERA of 4.76 and three saves.
The ERA has improved to 4.25 this season with nine saves through 31 games.
Senior right-handed closer Justin Garcia (2-2, 2.83 ERA) recorded 8 of those saves, and Curry called him “the MVP of the pitching staff.”
Garcia transferred to UALR before the 2017 season from McLennan (Texas) Community College and earned the closer role with the Trojans because of his ability to throw strikes.
Since arriving in Little Rock, Curry said, Garcia developed a “devastating swing-and-miss” changeup that is disguised by the same arm motion as his fastball, which tops out at 91 mph. The changeup will drop down to the high 70s.
Garcia’s 13.89 strikeouts per nine innings rank eighth nationally.
Garcia and junior right-hander Buck Donavin (3-0, 2.84) are the top relievers in a bullpen that’s helped the Trojans win eight games by two or fewer runs.
“In college baseball, it’s so difficult to have a bullpen because that means you have depth on the mound and you have room for people in the bullpen,” Curry said. “Finding pitching depth is so hard in college baseball, and only a small handful of teams have pitching depth.”
Sophomore left-hander Chandler Fidel (4-2, 3.63) and junior right-hander Pablo Ortiz (2-1, 1.89) will start in today’s doubleheader against Louisiana-Monroe.
UALR has lost its past three games, including a two-game sweep by Georgia Southern (16-15, 8-3), where the Eagles beat the Trojans 3-2 and 1-0.
UALR has the third-best team batting average (.271) in the Sun Belt, but the Trojans have produced the third-fewest runs (137).
Curry said the run production comes through junior second baseman Chase Coker (.330, 12 RBI), junior shortstop Matt Merino (.310, 16 RBI), sophomore catcher Kale Ermshoff (.288, 12 RBI) and junior right fielder Troy Alexander (.331, 29 RBI).
Coker has four triples, which tie the UALR single-season record.
The Sun Belt Tournament begins May 22, and the Trojans are on pace to earn the sixth seed.
Bears on track
With a third consecutive game lost and another conference series dropped, University of Central Arkansas junior pitcher Cody Davenport pitched a complete game shutout to beat Houston Baptist 5-0 on Sunday to stop the slide.
The victory jolted the Bears (19-13, 10-5 Southland Conference) back on path toward its highest seeding in the Southland Tournament since joining the conference in 2007.
“It was great to see,” said UCA Coach Allen Gum, whose Bears are in third place in the conference standings. “Offensively, we didn’t play that well in the first two games [against Houston Baptist]. We fought for our lives and needed a big start.
“[Davenport] did look good. He had command. Kind of what he looked like last year at times. Looks like the consistency is falling in place.”
Davenport, a 6-0, 210-pound right-hander, arrived in Conway after he was a two-time all-state selection at Fayetteville High School, which won the Class 7A state championship in 2013.
He went 6-2 with a 3.21 ERA as a freshman in 2016, then 4-4 with a 6.37 ERA in 2017.
Now he’s holding opponents to a career-low batting average (.226) and has gone 3-1 with a 3.76 ERA.
Davenport’s consistency has propped up the weekend pitching rotation, which begins with senior right-hander Tyler Gray (3-0, 2.52) and junior right-hander Tanner Wiley (2-1, 2.80).
“I like where we’re at,” Gum said.
UCA starts a three-game nonconference series against the University of Tennessee at Martin with a doubleheader at 1 p.m. today at Bear Stadium.
UAPB SS ‘special’
Before the season began, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Coach Carlos James said incoming freshman shortstop Jarficur Parker “is gonna be special.”
The 5-9, 160-pound Parker now leads the Golden Lions (11-14, 8-6 Southwestern Athletic Conference) with a .373 batting average, which ranks fifth in the conference.
James said Parker suffered a “mild ankle sprain” in Tuesday’s 9-1 loss to the University of Central Arkansas, but James said Parker “told me he’s going to play” in this weekend’s three-game series against Grambling State (16-17, 9-6).
“He’s shown a lot of maturity, and that’s something,” James said. “Over the long haul, freshmen break down. He’s been steady the whole time. Nothing bothers the kid.”
UAPB has 19 games remaining before the SWAC Tournament begins in New Orleans on May 16, and the Golden Lions are third in the West Division, a half-game behind Grambling.
The Tigers lost 7-6 to the No. 3 University of Arkansas, Fayetteville after leading 6-3 in the bottom of the eighth at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock on Tuesday night.
“I’m not giving Grambling any credit. It’s a rival,” James said. “If you look at the box, Arkansas didn’t start their normal lineup. [Second baseman Carson] Shaddy was out, [third baseman] Casey Martin wasn’t playing. [UA Coach Dave Van Horn] had to put those guys in to take the lead.
“It’s a midweek game. Grambling’s still Division I. It gave them a chance to be in the ballgame. You saw at the end of the game, Van Horn put his guys in, brought his guy out of the pen and shut them down. It’s still a loss to me. Wish it was us playing.”
Arkansas State University Coach Tommy Raffo knew his team needed a major adjustment when starting senior catcher Justin Felix suffered a broken fibula during the offseason.
Felix, who was last year’s leader in RBI, was expected to miss six weeks. He has now missed eight weeks and is not expected to return.
Senior third baseman Alex Howard also has missed the season with what Raffo would only disclose as a “health issue.”
The Red Wolves (11-18, 3-9 Sun Belt Conference) are now 11th out of 12 teams in the conference standings and are in danger of missing the Sun Belt Tournament’s limit of 10 participants.