HOOVER, Ala. — Will McEntire was the University of Arkansas’ most effective pitcher at Vanderbilt last weekend.
McEntire, a redshirt junior from Bryant, threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings and held the Commodores to 2 hits and 1 walk with 6 strikeouts on 85 pitches.
But it wasn’t a quality start for the right-hander.
For the first time this season, McEntire had two appearances in an SEC series in his new role out of the bullpen.
Going into No. 4 Arkansas’ SEC Tournament opener today against Texas A&M at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, McEntire has become one of the Razorbacks’ top relievers after struggling with consistency as a starter.
“I’m real happy with the way Will’s throwing the ball,” Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said. “It’s been great to see his evolution since he went to the pen.
“He’s resurrected his season. It’s been pretty impressive.”
In the last of McEntire’s 10 starts, he allowed 6 runs — including 4 home runs — in 4 innings with 3 walks and 6 strikeouts in a 7-3 loss at Georgia on April 21.
That outing ballooned McEntire’s ERA to 5.88.
In six relief appearances and 24 innings since then, McEntire has a 3.24 ERA and has held opponents to 17 hits and 7 walks with 31 strikeouts.
“I think it’s been fun coming out of the pen,” McEntire said. “I enjoy it. I don’t have to hold back and try and go seven innings. I can just let it all go out there.”
McEntire’s initial work as a reliever was to replace Brady Tygart as the sophomore built up his pitch count after missing eight weeks recovering from an elbow injury.
After Tygart started against Texas A&M and threw 20 pitches in his first game since March 1, McEntire replaced him in the second inning and pitched 5 2/3 innings. He held the Aggies to 3 runs, 2 hits and 3 walks with 8 strikeouts as the Razorbacks won 10-4.
“We like Will out of the bullpen,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said that day. “Some guys, maybe they think about [starting] all week and the night before they don’t sleep much and come out and pitch.
“When you come out of the pen, it’s a little different feeling.”
McEntire said it was an adjustment to pitch out of the bullpen in an SEC game, but he settled in after giving up a run in his first inning.
“Just need to attack,” McEntire said. “Need to eliminate the walks and go after guys.”
McEntire has four walks in his last 18 2/3 innings since his outing against Texas A&M.
Coming out of the bullpen wasn’t what the coaching staff envisioned for McEntire after he became a key starter last season in Arkansas’ run to the College World Series, capped by a seven-inning stint in the Razorbacks’ 11-1 victory over Auburn in Omaha, Neb.
But McEntire, 6-3 with 2 saves and a 5.05 ERA this season, has adapted well.
“I think sometimes when Will was starting, maybe he was trying to conserve some stuff or get into a rhythm,” Hobbs said. “Now that he’s a reliever, he’s got to be ready right out of the chute.
“I feel like he’s functioned really well with that kind of approach and mindset.”
Hobbs said McEntire — who throws a fastball, cut fastball that moves like a slider, curveball and changeup — is mixing his pitches differently as a reliever.
“He was throwing a lot of fastballs as a starter, and that’s not really his game,” Hobbs said. “Not that he doesn’t have a good fastball. He certainly does.
“But we talked about changing some of his usage rates and trying to push that number of fastballs down a little bit.”
Hobbs said McEntire has been throwing his cutter and curveball more as a reliever and that all of his pitches have increased in velocity with his fastball going from an average of 87 to 89 miles per hour and topping out at 90 to an average of 89 to 92 and topping out at 93.
“Maybe it’s just that he’s finally getting into a groove and feeling better the deeper he goes in the season,” Hobbs said. “But everything he’s throwing is a little harder. Everything’s got a little better shape. Everything’s a little bit firmer at the plate.
“As a result of that, you don’t see a ton of great swings anymore against him. You see a lot of bad swings. You see a lot of guys sitting on something, and getting something else.
“This is vintage Will McEntire. When he’s throwing the ball well, he’s going to make you think you’re going to get something, but he’s going to make you hit what he wants you to hit, not what you want to hit.”
In McEntire’s first three SEC relief appearances, he replaced Tygart in the second, third and fourth innings.
When Arkansas opened the Vanderbilt series with an 8-2 victory last Thursday, McEntire replaced starter Hagen Smith and worked the final four innings with 53 pitches.
Van Horn said after the game he thought there was an 80% chance McEntire wouldn’t throw the rest of the series. But McEntire came back with 2 1/3 innings and 32 pitches in a 7-6 loss on Saturday.
“I think I threw my fastball harder [Saturday] than I did Thursday,” McEntire said. “So I felt good.”
McEntire told Hobbs after Thursday night’s game he was ready to pitch again in the series if needed.
“With guys that have been starters, you usually worry about throwing them multiple times on the weekend,” Hobbs said. “But Will actually was better the second time against Vanderbilt.”
Van Horn said McEntire likely could have pitched another two innings on Saturday.
“McEntire was rolling along pretty good,” Van Horn said. “But we thought we were going to be safe and get him out. We just didn’t want to chance it.”
Van Horn said McEntire could pitch multiple times in the SEC Tournament if the Razorbacks have an extended stay.
“He’s a guy who we feel like wants to pitch more,” Van Horn said. “If we needed to use him in Game 1, Game 3, Game 4 — maybe not Game 4 — but whatever, a couple of times for sure get him out there and let him go a little bit.”
It’s not hard now to envision McEntire pitching twice in a regional, and if the Razorbacks advance, twice in a super regional or multiple times at the College World Series.
“I thought we’d have Will for one shot a weekend, but he showed us something against Vanderbilt — a different way we can use him,” Hobbs said. “If we manage that first outing of the weekend, we can have him again potentially for a second outing.
“It really does set up great for the postseason in terms of having a guy like Will that’s durable, a guy that’s been through it before and a guy that’s pitching really well right now.”