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Stars' pitching depth to be tested

by Jason Avery | January 28, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.

With 17 pitchers on the roster, South Arkansas Community College head coach Cannon Lester has plenty of options on the mound, but his top option will not be available for the 2022 season.

Kayden Keller, a freshman right-hander from Fouke who was slated to front the rotation, will miss the 2022 season due to undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Keller, who is rather imposing physically at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, stood to make a big impact thanks to a fastball that Lester said was clocked up to 94 miles per hour during Christmas.

“He’s developing offspeed pitches, but he really attacks the zone,” Lester said of Keller. “He hold runners well for a big guy. He really just attacks.”

Despite not having Keller, the Stars have plenty of pitchers who will need to get work, particularly early on the season not only to build strength, but also to get a clearer picture of who could fit in where.

With that in mind, Lester is going to be using a philosophy started by the Tampa Bay Rays that has become a fixture in the sport.

“We’re going to go starters for three, four or five innings and then ride our bullpen,” Lester said. “We’ve got some really high-end bullpen arms that we think can handle some leverage situations. They’re not so much starters. They’re maybe one-, two-, maybe three-inning guys, so we’re going to keep them at the back. We’ll make it through a time or two with our starters and then turn it over to our bullpen guys and hopefully let them finish it out.”

As one would expect early on the season, pitchers will be kept on tight pitch counts.

“We’ve got to be careful,” Lester said. “We started January 10th. We sent them home with a plan during Christmas when they were gone from us and we hope they did it. We hoped that they put that plan in place, but nothing is like the real thing when you come back.

“The guys have been really sore since we’ve come back. We’ve gone out twice with our starters and we’ve limited them to 40 pitches. I think they’re going to go 50 in the next couple of days. That first outing for our starters, if everything is going well, I would say maybe 70 max, and that’s if they’re rolling, not too many long innings.

“The relievers we’ll probably keep between 30 to 40. It will give a lot of guys some innings. We play a lot of innings every weekend playing four games. Those first four weekends, we’ll probably use them as our spring training. I think we’ll throw out a lot of different lineups and put guys in different situations. We want to win, but it’s all about developing and getting ready for conference play.”

In addition to Keller, the Stars will also be without Parker Goodman, a freshman from Liberty Eylau on the Texas side of Texarkana, due to a dislocated shoulder. Lester said that Goodman should return in a couple of weeks.

“His breaking ball has gotten a lot better,” Lester said. “He is a competitor and a hard worker.”

With Keller sidelined, Kyle Williams, a sophomore transfer from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, slots into the rotation’s top spot.

“I would venture to say Kyle probably has the best stuff of anybody in our conference,” Lester said. “He’s going to be 88 to 94 with high spin, good sinker, plus slider, plus change(up). The stuff is real. We’ve just got to be in the strike zone a little bit more. When he’s on, he’s about unhittable. I think he’ll be 95, 96 before the year is over. We’ve just got to get him in the zone a little bit more. He’s trying hard and (pitching) coach (Hayden) Dow is working hard with him.”

Kade Lively, a freshman from Mangham High School in Louisiana, is slated to pitch the second game of today’s doubleheader against North Arkansas at Arkansas Tech.

“He’s probably our hardest working pitcher. He’s a joy to be around,” Lester said. “He has a really good change. It’s like a power change. He pitches off of that. The breaking ball is developing. Just a big competitor on the mound.”

Hunter Royal, a freshman left-hander from Rogers Heritage who will likely be a two-way player for the Stars, is in the mix to start a game against North Arkansas as well.

If there is one thing about the Stars’ bullpen, it’s that it has great diversity with how pitchers can get hitters out.

Tex Cook, a freshman transfer from Arkansas Rich Mountain, could potentially emerge as the Stars’ closer.

“Of our bullpen arms, he is probably going to have the best stuff,” Lester said. “He’s going to be 87 to 91 and it sinks like crazy. The breaking ball is for real and he developed a cutter over Christmas. We’ve just got to get him in the zone a little bit. We could definitely see Tex being our closer. He’s got that mentality. He’s got the energy. We love the way he goes about his business. He just needs to be more consistent in the zone.”

One member of the Stars’ bullpen that Lester got acquainted with prior to becoming SouthArk’s head coach while he was El Dorado’s coach is White Hall’s Aaron Warriner, and the freshman has quickly established himself as someone who will be counted on to get big outs.

“I would say he was our best pitcher all fall,” Lester said. “His stuff is not electric, but he throws from a three-quarter arm slot and can drop down. He can throw his slider and changeup any time he wants. He’s not scared of anybody. We’ll probably bring him in when we need to. We’re not going to have a perse closer, but Aaron might come in in the fifth when it’s bases loaded and one out and it’s the biggest time of the game. We really trust him at any moment and any time.”

Trey Miller, a freshman right-hander from Benton Harmony Grove, has impressed the staff with his breaking ball.

“He’s got really good stuff,” Lester said. “His breaking ball is going to be about as good as anybody’s we’re going to face. He’s going to pitch off his breaking ball and he’s up to 85, 86 with the fastball. The breaking ball is for real. He going to be a one- or two-inning guy.”

A newcomer to the Stars is Josh Uchtmann, who transferred from Southern Arkansas.

“He’s a hard worker,” Lester said. “He has a good changeup and a good breaking ball. He has a good intensity about him.”

Former Hampton standout Trent Welch features a knuckleball, and Lester said the freshman surprised the staff with his performance.

“He threw great for us this fall,” Lester said. “He closed out the wins against National Park and Rich Mountain. His knuckleball has been up to 78 and his fastball has actually been up to 86. It kind of depends on the day and weather with Trent, but he’s a competitor and he’s not scared of anybody. He was probably our biggest surprise on the mound this fall. We look to get him out there.”

Including Royal, the Stars are also expecting to get a contribution from another two-way player in former Parkers Chapel standout Trace Shoup.

“There’s a few more arms that we could throw,” Lester said. “But I think if we can stay healthy and get those guys comfortable on the mound, those bullpen arms with Tex’s fastball that runs, Aaron’s slider and Trey’s breaking ball, those can be three pitches that are about unhittable when they are on, so if they can only face those guys one time, they’re going to be really tough to hit.” 

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