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Diamond Hogs zeroing in on weekend rotation

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Patrick Wicklander is coming off a strong start at South Carolina.
Patrick Wicklander is coming off a strong start at South Carolina. (SEC Media Portal)

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FAYETTEVILLE — Heading into the final month of the regular season, Arkansas finally seems to have some stability in its starting rotation.

Left-hander Patrick Wicklander and right-hander Peyton Pallette are scheduled to start the Razorbacks’ first two games at LSU this weekend, head coach Dave Van Horn announced Wednesday.

Although the Game 3 starter remains up in the air, those two pitchers have been really good for Arkansas in their last couple of outings and locked down the Friday and Saturday roles for a staff that had a lot of questions in the preseason - and even several weeks into the season.

Last weekend, Wicklander looked like a bonafide ace. Pitching in the series finale because of a scheduling quirk, he gave up only one run in seven innings at South Carolina. That followed a start in which he was nearly unhittable for 4 1/3 innings against Texas A&M.

By allowing just the one run, those two starts lowered Wicklander’s season ERA to 2.20. His numbers in SEC play are even better, posting a 1.97 ERA and holding opponents to a minuscule .184 batting average in 32 innings.

It has been a revelation for the Razorbacks, especially considering the junior wasn’t even in the rotation until the second weekend of SEC play.

Despite starting as a true freshman on the 2019 College World Series team and being a starter during the shortened 2020 season, Wicklander didn’t pitch at all during the season-opening event in Arlington, Texas. It wasn’t until after he threw a solid 5 1/3 innings in a 16-1 blowout loss to Alabama in the SEC opener that he returned to the rotation.

“The Alabama outing was probably the one that obviously convinced us that he was ready to go back to being a starter if needed,” Van Horn said. “For him personally I just think it’s more that gave him a lot of confidence going against a really good offensive team. It gave us and the players — the rest of the team — confidence in him. I think he sensed that and he’s built off of that.“

The pitcher Wicklander replaced in the rotation was actually Pallette, who gave up four earned runs in one inning in that aforementioned blowout loss to Alabama. The disastrous SEC debut led to him heading to the bullpen and he responded with back-to-back relief outings of at least four innings.

After giving up just two earned runs in 8 1/3 combined innings against Mississippi State and Auburn, Pallette replaced Zebulon Vermillion as the No. 2 starter. The sophomore got roughed up at Ole Miss, but has bounced back nicely.

Pallette threw six shutout innings against Texas A&M to earn a no decision in a game the Razorbacks eventually won and then went 5 1/3 innings at South Carolina. Although he was charged with two earned runs in his most recent start, Pallette kept the Gamecocks scoreless for five innings and both of his runs scored with another pitcher on the mound.

Over the last two weekends, Wicklander and Pallette have combined for a 1.19 ERA and 0.57 WHIP in 22 2/3 innings while holding the Aggies and Gamecocks to a .104 batting average.

That has secured their spots in the rotation, so now Van Horn can focus solely on the third starter. He told reporters that Vermillion, Caleb Bolden and Lael Lockhart are all options, but they could also pitch out of the bullpen in the first two games if a long reliever is needed.

As mentioned above, Vermillion was used as a starter earlier in the season and even turned in back-to-back eight-inning starts against Louisiana Tech and Alabama. He missed the Texas A&M series because of arm soreness and came out of the bullpen last weekend, struggling in a couple innings of work.

Another guy who has started and come out of the bullpen this year, Bolden was actually the Game 1 starter against South Carolina and pitched well enough to earn more consideration from Van Horn. He gave up one run in 3 1/3 innings.

Lockhart had been the Razorbacks’ third starter all season until the South Carolina series, when they were forced to change things things up because of the way the schedule fell. He ended up not pitching at all in Columbia, S.C., but had been pretty consistent before getting a quick hook his last two outings, causing his ERA to jump from 3.41 to 4.38.

Those three options, and getting an extra couple of days off, has Van Horn confident about his pitching staff ahead of the LSU series.

“Not using Lockhart all last week, if he could give us some innings - whether he starts or comes out of the pen and gives us a few quality innings - that would be big,” Van Horn said. “We feel like every team does if they’re rested up with their pitching, that we should be able to use some guys at least one time and maybe a couple of guys twice.”

It probably won’t be as a starter, but Connor Noland - the No. 1 starter in 2020 - could also pitch in the LSU series. He was available at South Carolina, but didn’t play in large part because of Wicklander’s long outing. Instead, the right-hander got some work against live hitters in Tuesday’s practice.

“Noland threw a lot of strikes, did a nice job,” Van Horn said. “First time up on the mound against hitters in a while, so…I thought he did pretty good.”

Arkansas is scheduled to open its series against the Tigers at 6 p.m. CT Friday. That game will be televised on the SEC Network.