Bolden debuts new pitch, carves up Texas (again)
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Texas hitters were battled when Caleb Bolden came out of the bullpen and debuted a new pitch Sunday night.
The right-hander mixed a recently developed slider in with his fastball and a few changeups to hold the Longhorns hitless over the final four innings of Arkansas’ 4-0 shutout victory and earn a lengthy save.
“Bolden at the end was unbelievable,” teammate Brady Slavens said. “He's been good ever since I got here, so that's not really a surprise to me.”
It wasn’t until the week leading up to the season that Bolden discovered the slider, as he randomly asked teammate Zebulon Vermillion - the Game 1 starter - how he threw his cutter one day while the pair was playing catch.
“He showed me his grip, so I started messing around with it and it came out so much better than my old grip,” Bolden said. “Coming from the low three-quarter arm slot that I have, it picked up a good eight inches of horizontal movement on it.”
After seeing Bolden throw the pitch in his bullpen session before heading to Arlington, Texas, for the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, pitching coach Matt Hobbs gushed that it was “filthy” and told him to throw it as much as he could this weekend.
“Sometimes with my old grip, the ball would stay up and it’d get hit,” Bolden said. “With this one, it feels like it has no choice but to have downward movement.”
That may seem like a quick timeline to implement a new pitch, especially days away from a season opener, but Bolden said he didn’t think it was very unusual because he’s always picking teammates’ brains and tinkering with things himself.
The returns were immediate, as he used the slider and excellent location with his fastball to strike out the first four batters he faced. Bolden ended up striking out seven of 14 batters while allowing only two base runners - one via a walk and one via a hit by pitch - on 56 pitches.
“He was in and out with that fastball,” head coach Dave Van Horn said. “He busted them in. He was throwing it anywhere from…I think I saw a 92 (mph), maybe 93 once or twice. The fastball moves and runs.”
Even though that isn’t the kind of velocity that flashes red numbers on the scoreboard, it is significantly higher than the 86-87 mph he was throwing at the Shriners College Classic in Houston last year.
Of course, Bolden was just 14 months removed from Tommy John surgery at the time, so he was still working his way back into form.
“It was kind of disappointing to myself, but I was talking with our trainer Corey (Wood) and the doctor and he was like, ‘It’s going to be at least 15 months until you get your velocity back,’” Bolden said. “That’s what happened. Now I’m back to 90-93 and it just feels so much better coming out.”
Despite that, he managed to hold Texas to only two hits in four scoreless innings of relief in a game Arkansas nearly rallied to win.
Including a relief outing in a midweek matchup as a freshman in 2018, the Texarkana, Texas, native has now thrown 11 scoreless innings against the Longhorns, allowing only three hits and three walks while striking out 15.
His early success in midweek outings that year led to speculation that he could be a future weekend starter. Tommy John surgery was a setback, but he posted a 1.12 ERA with 15 strikeouts and only three walks in 16 innings across four appearances and had just worked his way into the rotation when the pandemic ended the 2020 season.
Heading into 2021, Bolden was once again a candidate for a spot in the rotation, but was passed over in favor of Vermillion, Peyton Pallette and graduate transfer Lael Lockhart. He took it in stride when Hobbs broke the news to him and shifted his focus to coming out of the pen in long relief.
“I was excited for all three guys that got the starting job because we all worked our tail off for it,” Bolden said. “Just knowing coming out of the bullpen, I’m going to do anything and everything I can to help my team out because at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about getting that W on the board.”
That plan worked to perfection Sunday night. Pallette went 4 1/3 innings, Caden Monke finished off the fifth inning and then Bolden went the rest of the way.
With as many as seven or eight different pitchers capable of starting, that kind of game - something Van Horn has termed “bridging” - could become a trend this season, but Van Horn said he’s also hopeful a few guys will eventually build up their pitch counts and go six, seven or eight innings deep.
“If one guy can go give us four or five (and) the next guy can give us four and finish the game, that’s great,” Van Horn said. “You’re going to use three pitchers in just about every game out anyway.”
However, if he keeps pitching like he did against Texas, Bolden might not remain in the bullpen for long. In fact, Van Horn said “his start is coming” and there was a “real good chance” he starts one of the Razorbacks’ four games against Southeast Missouri State next weekend.
That series is scheduled to begin Thursday and run through Sunday.
“He has time to recover and get out there,” Van Horn said. “We play four days in a row, so it’s definitely going to stretch our pitching staff. It’s just good to see him go out and do what he did. I think it’s easy to put him out there to start.”
Before then, though, the Razorbacks have one more game at Globe Life Field. First pitch against TCU is slated for 7 p.m. CT, but could start later than that depending on the length of the two earlier games.