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FAYETTEVILLE — In a year highlighted by high-profile pitchers in the SEC, Patrick Wicklander has quietly put together arguably the conference’s best season by a starter.
The left-hander was sensational again Thursday night, allowing just one run on three hits with a career-high 11 strikeouts over six innings to earn the victory in Arkansas’ 6-1 win over Florida.
Vanderbilt’s dynamic duo of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter garners most of the national headlines and SEC Pitcher of the Year frontrunner Kevin Kopps steals the spotlight on his own team, but Wicklander came out of nowhere to emerge the ace on college baseball’s No. 1 team.
In SEC play, the San Jose native is 5-1 with a 1.70 ERA, 63 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 53 innings. Opponents are hitting just .201 against him and he has an impressive 0.98 WHIP.
Even head coach Dave Van Horn has been surprised by Wicklander’s success considering he didn’t pitch well enough before the season to earn a spot in the weekend rotation.
“It was hard to envision it because he was struggling – struggling at the end of last year when things finished up and all we had to go off of was what we saw in the fall,” Van Horn said. “I guess after a couple of outings I envisioned it, but probably not until we saw it.”
Not only did Wicklander get left out of the rotation to start the year, but he didn’t pitch at all on Opening Weekend. It wasn’t until the Southeast Missouri State series that he finally got on the mound and he threw four scoreless innings of relief.
He followed that up with two scoreless innings against Murray State and seemed to be earning his way back into the rotation before struggling in back-to-back outings against Louisiana Tech and Oklahoma.
A few days after failing to get through the second inning of his start against the Sooners, though, Wicklander was called upon out of the bullpen in the Razorbacks’ SEC-opening blowout loss to Alabama.
The game was already out of hand, with the Crimson Tide leading 10-1, but he settled things down and gave Arkansas 5 1/3 strong innings. The only blemish on Wicklander’s line was a two-out solo home run he allowed in his final inning of work.
That gave Van Horn the confidence to stick him back in the starting rotation, where he ended 2019 as an SEC All-Freshman Team selection and began the 2020 season.
However, the journey back to that role wasn’t easy. He struggled to a 6.32 ERA in four starts before last season was canceled and then was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes during the layoff.
In an interview on The Morning Rush radio show earlier this week, Wicklander said the condition runs in his family, so he had first-hand knowledge of it, but he still had to adjust to the diagnosis.
“Being a DI athlete, it’s just another thing to focus on other than lifting and stuff like that,” Wicklander said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to watch your glucose, your blood sugar, make sure you’re not too low.’ It just kind of enhanced my focus. It’s kind of been a blessing in disguise, in all honesty.”
Now that he has his health under control, he’s filled a void that many outsiders were concerned about going into the season. There was no obvious Blaine Knight or Isaiah Campbell waiting in the wings to be the Razorbacks’ ace, especially with Wicklander and Connor Noland beginning the year in the bullpen.
Since the start of conference play, though, Wicklander has been just as good – if not better – than his predecessors.
The only area in which he noticeably lags behind is innings pitched. While Knight averaged just under six innings per SEC appearance and Campbell routinely worked into the seventh, Wicklander averages about 5 1/3 innings.
That can be attributed to the pitchers’ differing styles, as Wicklander is more of a high strikeout guy who has to throw more pitches. It took him 96 pitches, but getting through the sixth like he did Thursday against Florida is typically what Van Horn is looking for before turning it over to Kopps.
“We were hoping he’d give us six innings, honestly,” Van Horn said. “That’s usually going to be about in the 90s most of the time, especially since he strikes out a lot of hitters. The count’s going to get up there.”
Although he’s not one of the 18 pitchers representing 10 of the 14 SEC schools on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top 200 prospects for this summer’s MLB Draft, Wicklander is in position to earn All-SEC honors and likely earned himself a larger signing bonus by the way he’s pitched in 2021.
“He deserves it,” Van Horn said. “He’s worked extremely hard and been through a lot. I’m just really happy for him.”