Pitching, defensive issues prove costly at A-State

Arkansas State third baseman Ben Klutts sprints out of the batter’s box during a Sun Belt Conference tournament game against Texas-Arlington in Montgomery, Ala. Klutts earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors as a junior, finishing the season with a .320 batting average, seven home runs and 28 runs batted in.

JONESBORO — Arkansas State’s offensive statistics stacked up fairly well among Sun Belt Conference baseball teams this spring.

Unfortunately for ASU, deficiencies on the mound and in the field overshadowed what the Red Wolves did at the plate as they finished 19-30 overall and 10-14 in the Sun Belt.

ASU had the Sun Belt’s worst team earned run average (7.22) and fielding percentage (.955). While they were better in both categories in conference play, finishing with a 5.86 ERA and .971 fielding percentage over 24 league games, head coach Tommy Raffo said the Red Wolves especially need to pitch better to contend in the conference.

Eight of the league’s 12 teams rank among the top 115 nationally in team ERA this season, including five in the top 100. Louisiana-Lafayette is seventh nationally in team ERA, while Sun Belt tournament champion South Alabama checks in at No. 15.

ASU, meanwhile, is No. 266 out of 286 Division I teams in earned run average.

“We have to get better on the mound,” Raffo said in reviewing his 13th season at ASU. “There’s no question that’s got to happen for us to be better in the league. I thought the league was very good on the mound and I’ll say it again, the first four teams in the league pitching-wise are your (tournament) semifinalists, or basically your one and two seeds.

“The old adage in baseball is pitching wins, or pitching and defense, and if you have really good pitchers who don’t let you put the ball in play, then you don’t have those chances to miss in the field. I think some of the better teams we’ve had, we’ve had good pitching to go along with good hitting.”

Injuries contributed to ASU’s pitching problems, especially early in the season. Senior Zech Jarrard pitched in only three games while junior Jared Wilson didn’t pitch at all, and Raffo said those two were considered likely weekend starters.

The Red Wolves lost their first seven games, including a 26-3 rout at Abilene Christian that set school records for earned runs (26) and walks (21) allowed.

Raffo said ASU had to shuffle its pitching plans without Jarrard and Wilson.

“You’re looking at starters getting 60 innings a year. That might have been 120 innings we were counting on that just didn’t happen,” Raffo said. “Then you add the slow start. I think the last thing that was difficult to get our feet underneath us was we had to adjust to the scheduling due to some things we had to do. To compete and play at those high-level places, that was absolutely the most fun we had, but at the same time there was a lot of travel involved. That’s something where we’re going to work to get our schedule more in line with a one at home, one on the road type of deal versus two to one.”

ASU played 32 of its 49 games away from home, including 30 true road games. The Red Wolves played seven games against opponents from high-major leagues, managing one win against an Oklahoma squad that tied for fifth in the Big 12.

Raffo said he could see things start to improve as ASU settled into a weekend rotation of Brandon Hudson, Will Nash and Carter Holt.

The Red Wolves swept UALR in Sun Belt play and won a series against Georgia Southern. After being swept at Appalachian State to start conference play, they managed at least one win in the rest of their Sun Belt series.

Seeded fifth from the West Division, ASU knocked off East No. 3 seed Troy 9-6 in the Sun Belt tournament. The Red Wolves’ season ended with an 8-3 loss to Texas-Arlington.

“We were able to get some better opportunities against Sun Belt teams with some better starting pitching,” Raffo said. “Obviously our offense was our mainstay. … We knew we had to be able to outscore some opponents this year and in some of our scores and our wins, you saw that happen.”

ASU won high-scoring games at Oklahoma (15-14) and Louisiana-Lafayette (16-11). The Red Wolves lost 18-10 at Mississippi State and 15-12 at Ole Miss.

Junior catcher Liam Hicks, who missed eight games with a hamstring injury, had the Sun Belt’s third-best batting average at .344. Raffo said Hicks is a strong draft possibility next month, even with only 20 rounds.

Junior third baseman Ben Klutts finished at .320, including a .340 average in conference play that helped him earn first-team All-Sun Belt honors. Senior right fielder Tyler Duncan became the first ASU player since 1994 to lead the league in runs batted in while driving in 54, the school’s highest RBI total since 2014.

Duncan, a second-team All-Sun Belt selection, belted 11 of ASU’s 60 home runs. The Red Wolves had the Sun Belt’s second-highest home run total, including a league-high 27 in 24 conference games.

Senior center fielder Drew Tipton, junior left fielder Jaylon Deshazier and senior designated hitter Sky-Lar Culver were also key contributors to an offense that was second in on-base percentage (.363), third in slugging percentage (.432) and fourth in batting average (.267) among Sun Belt teams.

Tipton hit nine home runs, while Hicks, Klutts and Deshazier had seven each. Deshazier was second on the team with 38 RBI.

“You look at all the starting pitchers who were thrown at us and for us to have that type of year offensively, we wish we could have matched it up to a better year pitching-wise,” Raffo said.

With the exception of Hicks, Raffo said he expects ASU to return key position players who have eligibility remaining.

The Red Wolves are also looking for Hudson, Nash and Holt to pitch again in 2022. Nash had a 4.11 ERA in a team-high 65.2 innings pitched as a junior, finishing a 3-6 record. Hudson was 5-3 with a 5.10 ERA as a sophomore, while Holt was 4-3 with a 5.18 ERA as a junior. ASU loses key relievers Kollin Stone and Jack Jumper, both of whom were seniors.

“The ability to be in the strike zone or what I call being competitive around the strike zone, I think that hurt us. There were a lot of runs being scored against us at times,” Raffo said. “But I was pleased with some of the performances with our starting pitching. Most of the time our formula for winning a game was six innings from starting pitching with a bridge between (Jake) Algee, Jumper and Stone. They were the ones you could count on being very competitive in the strike zone.”

Details of a contract extension for Raffo are being worked out, according to the ASU athletic media relations office.

ASU signed eight players during the early period, all in-state high school recruits. The Red Wolves are expected to announce more recruits this spring and summer.

Five of the eight early signees – Jonesboro’s Sawyer Bentley, Marion’s Daedrick Cail, Pocahontas’ Dawson Chester, Valley View’s Wil French and Gosnell’s Cooper Pieri – are from Northeast Arkansas. Cabot’s Kyler Carmack, Nashville’s Ty Gordon and Texarkana’s Jackson Harris also signed with ASU in November.

“We’re extremely excited about the ’21 class coming in with all the Northeast Arkansas/Arkansas guys,” Raffo said. “I think the community, when they know somebody is playing in town, there’s an extreme amount of support and we saw that with a couple of our local guys on the team now, for instance Jake Algee. We multiply that times all the young men coming in and I think it bodes very well.”