Blake Adams leads trio of talented in-state freshman pitchers
FAYETTEVILLE — It may be his collegiate debut, but Sunday will be far from the first time Blake Adams has taken the mound at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Although he won just once, the freshman right-hander guided Springdale Har-Ber to three straight state championship game appearances during a standout high school career. Now pitching for Arkansas, he was officially announced as the No. 3 starter in the opening weekend series against Eastern Illinois on Wednesday.
“It’s been my dream school since I was 8 years old,” Adams said. “I’ve had season tickets my whole life. I committed when I was in 10th grade, so I had a little wait to get here and now that I’m here, it’s really exciting.”
Head coach Dave Van Horn initially named Adams the frontrunner to start Sunday’s 1 p.m. game at the monthly Swatter’s Club meeting last week.
However, he wanted to see how the freshman fared against the Razorbacks’ starting lineup in their final preseason intrasquad scrimmage. Adams got roughed up a bit in the first couple of innings, but Van Horn was pleased with how he settled in.
“I’m sure he was extremely excited about it and probably a little nervous about it, but at the same tine we told him before he threw this past weekend that we wanted to put a little bit of pressure on him and see how handled it,” Van Horn said. “I thought he did a pretty good job of it.”
With Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander entrenched as the top two starters going into the offseason, Adams was one of several pitchers considered a candidate to win the third spot.
A major key to him beating out veterans like Kevin Kopps and Kole Ramage was that he added velocity over the summer and was throwing harder than ever before. After sitting between 89-91 miles per hour in high school, Adams is now consistently throwing 92-94.
He credited pitching coach Matt Hobbs and strength coach Blaine Kinsley for that increase in such a short amount of time.
“I think, obviously, getting with Coach Hobbs and getting on an arm routine,” Adams said. “I’ve never really had an arm-care program and obviously going in the weight room with Blaine and gaining a lot of strength these past five months.”
Throwing hard is only half the battle. Where Adams really separated himself from other freshmen was his consistency in throwing pitches over the plate - something Van Horn places a premium on every season.
“We’ve seen him throw a lot of strikes,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know if he walked anyone all fall (and) I know he’s walked one or two in his three outings this early spring.”
As is the case for Noland and Wicklander, the plan is for him to throw between 70-75 pitches against Eastern Illinois, unless he struggles and puts people on base. If he has to work out of the stretch most of the time, his pitch count could be more like 50-60.
That said, teammate Casey Martin sees Adams making it several innings in his first start and having a lot of success as a freshman.
“He’s learned to throw a slider down in the zone, a big-league slider, and he’s worked on his changeup,” Martin said. “There’s no reason that dude shouldn’t go out and just shove for five, six, even seven straight innings. He’s got great poise and attitude for a freshman, which is honestly kind of hard to find in a lot of guys coming in, to fill a big role like that.”
Preseason All-American Heston Kjerstad also had high praise for the right-hander, calling him one of the best freshman arms he’s seen. He’s been particularly impressed with his maturity and ability to actually pitch, rather than just throw.
“The high schoolers - the best kids in their district or their state, wherever they come from - they can just kind of throw whatever they want over the plate,” Kjerstad said. “Once they come here, they learn they’ve got to pitch a little bit more and hit their spots a little bit better, and he came in from Day 1 and was able to do that.”
It is the second straight year - and third time in the last five - Van Horn has included a freshman in his opening rotation, as Blaine Knight and Noland started Game 2 in 2016 and 2019, respectively.
Last season was particularly unique because the Razorbacks ended the year with a pair of freshmen in their starting rotation. Noland and Wicklander each earned Freshman All-SEC honors and have been impressed with what they’ve seen from Adams.
“He doesn’t seem fazed by a whole lot, actually,” Wicklander said. “He just goes out and competes like he always has.”
It’s also worth noting that Adams only recently started focusing solely on pitching. A talented outfielder who also hit seven home runs as a senior in high school, he played both ways during the fall.
He met with Hobbs to talk about his goals in November and admitted he wanted to go further in baseball with pitching, so they decided to ditch the bat this season. Whether or not he picks it up in the future remains to be seen.
“We’ll see how it goes, I guess,” Adams said. “I’ve never had a time in baseball where I got to focus on one, so I really want to see where this takes me, just getting to focus on pitching and how good I can get at pitching instead of worry about getting better at both.”
The Razorbacks will also count on a pair of other in-state freshmen on the mound this season.
A right-hander out of Benton, Peyton Pallette also has experience pitching at Baum-Walker Stadium. He was on the losing end of state championship games his final two seasons in high school, falling to Noland (Greenwood) in 2018 and future teammate Tyler Cacciatori (Sheridan) last year.
Now with at Arkansas, he is throwing the ball hard and made an early impression on Van Horn as a potential contributor as a freshman.
“His curveball is as good as anybody’s and he throws his fastball anywhere from 93 to 95, and there’s nobody in the stands,” Van Horn said. “When it warms up and the place is jumping and his adrenaline’s going, there’s going to be more.”
In addition to those two pitches, Pallette said he’s also been really working on a changeup this offseason. Adding that third pitch would be huge, but catcher Casey Opitz said he already has good stuff.
“He’s got the stuff and you can really tell when he’s out there, he knows how to attack hitters,” Opitz said. “That’s tough at a young age, but he knows what he wants to do and that’s just going to get better with time and more experience.”
Pallette said it was nerve-wracking when he first got to Fayetteville, where he’s always dreamed of playing, but he’s since gotten used to it and settled in. Being one of a few freshmen Van Horn has mentioned as a contributor, though, still feels “surreal” and “unbelievable.”
“It’s an honor to be able to play at such a big level, especially with him being my head coach,” Pallette said. “My expectation is just to go out and do what I know how to do at the capability that I know how to play.”
The other Arkansas native fans should be aware of is left-hander Zack Morris out of Cabot.
He rested his arm last weekend, but should be ready to go against Eastern Illinois. In his last intrasquad outing, Morris turned in an extremely impressive performance, getting Kjerstad, Opitz and Jacob Nesbit - all projected starters - to look at strike three. He also struck out Braydon Webb, another starter, in the next inning.
“He’s a hard-throwing lefty that’s throwing 92, 93, and now he’s got a good breaking ball,” Van Horn said. “He’s starting to command the ball a little bit better. This is a guy that, why shouldn’t he pitch? It doesn’t matter how old you are if you think you can do it.”
Other aspects of his game that could earn him some innings this season are that he’s quick to the plate, which gives catches a chance to throw out runners, and that he’s effective with his breaking ball against right- and left-handed hitters.
Van Horn even indicated he could be a future closer, following in the footsteps of fellow left-hander Matt Cronin - arguably the best closer in UA history.
“He could be something special,” Van Horn said. “I mean, he may work himself into a closer role if he shows he can do it. We had a pretty good left-handed closer here for a couple of years in a row.”