The University of Arkansas baseball team has its share of stars. Sophomore outfielder Andrew Benintendi has won different national player of the year honors, junior outfielder Tyler Spoon is a four-year starter and a standout power hitter, Keaton McKinney was a freshman All-American pitcher, and All-SEC closer Zach Jackson has endeared Hogs fans by pitching more than three innings in a Super Regionals clinching game against Missouri State University Sunday, June 7.
However, the team is also loaded with a talented supporting class that has helped the Hogs dig out from a 1-5 start in the SEC to one of the more dangerous teams in the College World Series field. Senior relief pitcher Jackson Lowery, a Pulaski Academy alumnus, is one of those role players who has stood out. Lowery has notched a 7-1 record, mostly coming out of the bullpen, but in just the third start of his career, he led the Hogs to a 4-3 win against St. Johns Univeristy to clinch the NCAA Stillwater Regional. Lowery pitched five-plus innings and gave up just one hit while retiring the first 11 hitters.
The 6-foot-180-pounder also pitched a career high of more than six innings of relief in a 3-1 loss to Missouri State when starter McKinney was pulled in the second inning. Lowery kept the game within reach, allowing just two runs and striking out six.
Lowery has become increasingly more valuable since Dominic Taccolini has been unavailable since the regionals and now starter James Teague will have to miss the College World Series. That will mean more action for Lowery and maybe a start in the series.
We caught up with the former PA kicker earlier in the week to talk about getting to the series, winning with a short-handed pitching staff and potentially helping Coach Dave Van Horn win his first series at UA and more.
Q: How does it feel to play in Omaha, Nebraska, your final season?
A: It is a dream come true. There would be no better feeling than to go out and win five baseball games. I feel so blessed for this incredible opportunity this team has given me to play a few more games. There are a lot of people involved in helping us get here, not just the team. We want to make sure that everyone knows we appreciate that.
Q: What will be the key to making a long run?
A: Just keep on playing good baseball and pitching well. Our offense is going to hit like they always do. We don’t need to change anything; we just need to not let the moment get to us and stay on task.
Q: How tough will it be to play several games with a short pitching staff?
A: One of the strongest aspects of our team is how much love we have for each other. If one guy goes down, the next guy is ready to pick him up. Somebody will step up like they have all season.
Q: What has been the difference between this team when they started the SEC 1-5?
A: I don’t know that there is a lot of difference. One of my favorite quotes is, “Don’t let the highs get you too high and lows too low.” We have been focused all year long. I don’t know that a lot has changed. We have played hard all year; we are just getting some breaks.
Q: How fulfilling has it been for you to make such a big influence as a long reliever?
A: It has definitely been a good feeling to help my teammates. We are all working together to be successful, and it is a good feeling to do your part and do a good job. I am happy for my teammates, coaches and fans.
Q: What was it like when when Jackson struck out the final batter in the Missouri State game and you realized you had won?
A: It was one of the greatest feelings in the world. I don’t know how to put it into words. It was a mix of relief and satisfaction that everything we have done our whole life to get to this point has paid off. I am just thankful for everyone that helped and for our fans. They are so unbelievable. I was feeling so many emotions in one moment.
Q: How nervous were you the longer Jackson stayed in the game?
A: I don’t know if I was nervous, honestly. I knew the kind of stuff he has and the kind of person he is. We expect him to do those things. He was incredible in the biggest game, but I know how much work he puts in and what kind of family he comes from. I was happy for him to be successful.
Q: What was the dugout like?
A: We have a pretty loose team, and all year, we have embraced the fact that baseball is supposed to be fun. I think we are looser than most dugouts would have been in that situation. I’m not going to lie, the last two innings were pretty tense, but we knew we had [Jackson] out there, so we weren’t that nervous.
Q: What was your reaction when you came in Game 2 after McKinney wasn’t feeling it?
A: I wanted to focus the next pitch. I just wanted to go out there and do my job and help the team win. I trust the guys behind me, and they trust me. They are the set in the country.
Q: How tense did it get between teams?
A: It was pretty intense. On Saturday (June 6), if we won, we were going to Omaha, and they were fighting hard to stay alive. On Sunday (June 7), we were both trying to get to Omaha, so emotions were running high. If somebody is trying to start something, you are always taught to play the game the right way. The older guys kept their focus, and the younger guys did, too. You don’t want to play too emotional. If it is a boxing match, it might have been different, but it is baseball. We have our teammate’s backs, but you don’t want to do something that is going to cost the team Andrew has had guys running their mouths all year, but he has done a good job of playing it off and doing his job.
Q: Did teams in the SEC talk as much as Missouri State or were they more mouthy?
A: [Missouri State] was mouthing more than some teams, but Matt Hall [Missouri State pitcher] pitched his butt off. [Mouthing] is a part of their game, and they are a heckuva ball club.
Q: I know you want to take the high road, but as the pitcher, were you tempted to throw at anyone?
A: I always have my teammates’ backs, but in that kind of a game, it wouldn’t be worth it. I had their backs by pitching as well as I can. In baseball, you don’t want to hit a guy and put the game in jeopardy. I have their back on other ways.
Q: How did you celebrate Sunday night?
A: We hung out with the guys and our family, and went out to eat and kind of collected our thoughts. You think about all of the hard work and how you get to play a few more games.
Q: Why do you not wear a shirt under your jersey?
A: I always do that. It is just comfortable for me when I pitch. I don’t like my arm to be constricted. If it is really cold, I may put a shirt on underneath. Some of the other guys don’t wear one, either.
Q: You were an onside kick specialist at Pulaski Academy. Have you ever thought about showing [UA head football Coach] Bret Bielema some of your talents?
A: I don’t know if I could do it, those guys are pretty big, but if they needed some help, it would be an honor to put on a Razorback helmet. Jacob Stone [UA pitcher] was a really good high school football player, and he always brags about it and jokes about me being a kicker. I just show him my ring, and he shuts up.
Q: How much would it mean to this team to give Van Horn his first College World Series title at UA?
A: It would be incredible. All of us owe him so much for giving us the opportunity. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be here. We have worked our tails off all year. We are just going to try to do what we have done all year.