FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas closer Colby Suggs takes pride in toughness.
He was a high school center, playing in the trenches at Sulpher Springs High despite being just 6-foot. His teammates often describe him as a bulldog because of his toughness on the mound. Suggs even has the word “tough” written under his cap.
So imagine the frustration Suggs felt earlier this season, when the preseason All-American wasn’t exactly living up to his personality on the mound largely because of a preseason oblique injury. Suggs did try to grit his teeth and continue working through some soreness, but simply wasn’t tough on hitters.
“I’ve never struggled like that,” Suggs said. “I’ve never really had an injury.”
There’s good news for Arkansas (21-8, 6-3 in Southeastern Conference) as it opens a three-game series at Alabama (19-11, 7-2 in SEC) in Sewell-Thomas Stadium tonight, though: Suggs has gotten through it. The junior appears healthy and confident after his early struggles as conference play presses on.
Suggs has recorded three saves in Arkansas’ past four SEC games, playing a key role in a series sweep at South Carolina and two wins against Mississippi State. It’s a good sign for the Razorbacks, who entered the season counting on Suggs to succeed in the closing role for a team relying on solid pitching to compete for a title.
“It's huge, having a guy back that proved that he's able to handle that situation and that role in the past,” Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn said Tuesday. “It's big to know you've got that guy sitting down there that's going to come in there with the composure and the make-up to be able to close the games out.”
Suggs was so good at it late last year, sliding into the closing role as Barrett Astin became more valuable in long relief during the postseason. He threw a perfect ninth inning to help Arkansas secure the Houston Regional title. He was there once again in game three of the Super Regional at Baylor, holding the Bears scoreless for two innings to complete a 1-0 win that pushed Arkansas into the College World Series.
Suggs didn’t have a save in 2012, but went 7-1 with a 1.38 earned run average. He limited opponents to a .203 batting average and only allowed six runs in 39 innings.
So Suggs, whose fastball tops out around 98 miles an hour, was the obvious choice to remain Arkansas’ closer in 2013. He was named a closer of the year candidate in the preseason. Then came the preseason oblique injury and the struggles afterward.
“I tried to come back too early,” Suggs said. “There were a few mechanical issues after the oblique injury because I wasn't able to do anything. I wasn't able to twist or turn. So whenever I got back, I didn't really have it at the beginning.”
Suggs entered the South Carolina series with a team-high 4.26 ERA. He had only piched 6 1/3 innings, but had allowed three runs on three hits.
Most of the damage was self-inflicted. Suggs had walked 11 batters, which was the second-highest on the team behind Ryne Stanek (13 walks in 21 2/3 innings).
“To me, early, he was muscling up and trying to throw too hard,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “I don't think he was completely healthy and I think it just affected everything he was doing. But the last I think three outings, when he needs a strike, he throws it. Throws that breaking ball.
“I think he just got healthy and now he's confident he's back to his old self.”
Suggs believes the turning point came in the series finale at South Carolina, when he came out of the bullpen to keep the Gamecocks scoreless to wrap up a 5-3 win in 11 innings. Suggs didn’t help himself early in the appearance, surrendering a single and a walk to put the tying run on base. But he ended the game – and helped Arkansas complete an important sweep on the road – by inducing a ground ball out.
He was even more impressive in a tighter spot last Friday, helping Arkansas preserve a 5-4 win against the Bulldogs. Suggs came out of the bullpen with runners on second and third with one out. He got the second out on a pop up, then after an intentional walk, struck out MSU’s cleanup hitter on three pitches.
It was the first of two saves over the weekend. He also wrapped up the series finale by pitching a scoreless ninth inning in Arkansas’ 3-1 win. The success led Van Horn to let Suggs know the ball will be in his hand in the ninth inning from now on.
“That's a great confidence boost for him to say that I'm the closer and I'm the guy at the end of the game,” Suggs said. “Win or lose, it's on me. I feel like I can handle that. I'm just glad the team has confidence in me and they want me back there at the end.”
He’ll be needed considering Arkansas appears to be following the same script from 2012, when strong pitching nearly pushed it into the CWS championship series.
Arkansas is 7-5 in games decided by two runs or less so far this season. The Razorbacks started 2-5 in those close games, but have won five straight since. All five of those wins have come in Arkansas’ past seven games.
Suggs is used to the pressure packed situations. Actually, he’s eager for them.
“Whenever you're warming up in the bullpen, it's kind of nerve-wracking because you're kind of like, ‘Here's the situation,’” Suggs said. “But once you're out on the mount, you're like, ‘Let's go do this. Let's attack this hitter.’”
The Razorbacks are confident he’ll succeed when the game is on the line too, after working through some early-season struggles. Arkansas believes its closer is back.
“The ninth inning's sewn up now,” Arkansas reliever Jalen Beeks said.
No. 14 Arkansas (21-8, 6-3 in SEC) at Alabama (19-11, 7-2 in SEC)
When: Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 6:35 p.m., Saturday at 1:05 p.m.
Where: Sewell-Thomas Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
TV: Thursday – ESPNU
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Starting Pitchers: Arkansas — RHP Barrett Astin (2-1, 2.60 ERA), RHP Ryne Stanek (2-2, 2.34 ERA); LHP Randall Fant (2-0, 1.26 ERA); Alabama — RHP Charley Sullivan (3-1, 2.60 ERA), LHP Jon Keller (3-3, 3.86 ERA), RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-1, 2.59 ERA)
Top Hitters: Arkansas — SS Brian Anderson (.337, HR, 19 RBI), RF Tyler Spoon (.325, 3 HR, 34 RBI), CF Matt Vinson (.320, HR, 14 RBI), 3B Jacob Mahan (.319, HR, 12 RBI); Alabama — RF Ben Moore (.297, 2 HR, 20 RBI), 1B Austen Smith (.294, 3 HR, 20 RBI), C Brett Booth (.294, 2 HR, 21 RBI), CF Georgie Salem (.290, 3 2B, 16 RBI)