State of the Hogs: Arkansas rides Campbell's solid pitching to finals

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, June 22, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell throws during a College World Series game against Florida on Friday, June 22, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell throws during a College World Series game against Florida on Friday, June 22, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Arkansas eliminated No. 1 seed Florida, the defending national champion, with a 5-2 victory Friday night at the College World Series.

The fifth-seeded Razorbacks advance to the championship round on Monday with undefeated ace Blaine Knight rested for his second Omaha start. The Hogs have not won a national title in baseball and played in the title round only once, when they lost twice to Cal State Fullerton in 1979.

Knight (13-0, 2.88 ERA) will be the starter when the Hogs play Monday night. They await the winner of Saturday's game between Mississippi State and Oregon State. The Hogs have two days to rest. Knight will pitch on seven days of rest.

Freshman Casey Martin and sophomore Dominic Fletcher led the Razorbacks past the Gators with huge performances at TD Ameritrade Park.

Martin stroked four hits and scored three times, and Fletcher homered for the second straight game. Martin gave the Hogs their last run when he beat out an infield hit for an RBI. It came with two outs in the sixth after the Gators had cut the lead to 4-2 in the fifth.

The Hogs got a dominant performance from Isaiah Campbell. The redshirt sophomore set an Arkansas CWS record with eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings of two-hit pitching.

Arkansas made it through its bracket undefeated. The Hogs never trailed on Friday after jumping to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. The speedy Martin reached on a one-out single, advanced to second on a pop fly to right, perhaps surprising the Florida fielder by tagging up in front of him. Luke Bonfield drove him home with a single.

The Hogs never looked back. Campbell had all of his stuff working. He took advantage of a big strike zone that seemed expanded up. His fastball was consistently in the 93-95 mph range and his cut fastball exploded down for swings and misses by the Gators.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said before the game that he wasn't surprised to see the Gators emerge from the loser's bracket. Van Horn said, “We knew we'd see them sooner or later up here.”

Arkansas defeated Florida for the second time this postseason. The Hogs beat the Gators at the SEC Tournament four weeks ago to tie the season series after Florida won two of three during the regular season in Gainesville, Fla.

That trip was one of Campbell's low points. He missed most of last season with elbow surgery and was on a nice comeback before a tender elbow reduced his effectiveness in Gainesville. Van Horn bemoaned little notice of the Campbell meltdown then, because his pitcher had not complained of soreness.

Campbell was ineffective in a short appearance in the regional round, but was superb in his start in the clinching victory over South Carolina in the super regional. He was sharp against the Gators, too. The two runs he allowed came on a weak opposite field single and a wild pitch that catcher Grant Koch probably thinks should have been stopped.

The Hogs lost the middle game of the series at Florida, 17-2, when Campbell left after facing three batters in the second inning, down 6-0 with no outs. The Hogs went with young pitchers the rest of the day, saving their best for Sunday.

There was a thought of avenging that loss when Campbell awoke on Friday morning. That game was in the “back of his mind” because he knew he “didn't help the team. It was one of my worst starts.”

Van Horn emphasized that Campbell was hurt when he pitched in Gainesville.

“He missed close to a month after that,” Van Horn said. “There was a lack of experience, too. He didn't know how to handle failure.

“But the last two games (against South Carolina and Florida), he has been what we thought we had. We kept telling him that we gotta have him.

“He's come a long way since that game in Florida. He's a true SEC starter and on any given day he can shut you down.”

Campbell said his thoughts on the mound were similar to what he took into the South Carolina victory in the super regional.

“I came in with the same mentality as the super,” he said, “just that every inning was the ninth.

“I went mainly with my fastball and cutter. The cutter was the worst pitch in the pen warming up, but I found it in the game.”

Campbell said the cutter has developed from a slider “with more hip movement” and “more conviction.”

Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan was asked if Campbell was better than expected.

"I'll answer it honestly, yeah, a lot better than I thought," O'Sullivan said. "He had, I think, a perfect game through 4. Didn't walk anybody. Once we got him in the stretch, seemed like he lost some of his command, but it was certainly different pitcher than we saw in Gainesville, that's for sure."

Florida star JJ Schwarz said there were few mistakes by Campbell, unlike his early game with the Gators.

"I would say he was throwing way more strikes, and his fastball was playing up," Schwarz said. "It was a lot harder than the radar gun was showing. And I think that was evident by our swings.

"He was throwing his slider at the right times, and he was playing off his fastball. So it was a tough night for us."

Jake Reindl followed Campbell with solid work out of the pen, then Florida native Matt Cronin got the final six outs for his 13th save to tie the school record. One of those outs was a running, leaping catch in foul territory by Eric Cole in the ninth. He snared a slicing drive reaching into the stands.

Fletcher became the first player with four hits in the CWS in TD Ameritrades on Wednesday. Martin joined him with a double and three singles. Van Horn praised both.

“Casey had an incredible game,” Van Horn said, noting his speed was the key on several plays. “One of the runs came when he beat out the chopper. That was his speed.

“Fletcher is just more comfortable. He hooked one foul in his last at bat and that's what he was doing early. But he just missed another (homer) on a curve ball. Sometimes hitters get in a groove and he's in one now.”

The Hogs will try to take that mentality into the championship round. Martin said it means the world to have a chance at a national crown.

“It's a dream,” he said. “Honestly, I hadn't thought about it. I dreamed of playing for this team and starting as a true freshman.”

O'Sullivan wished mentioned well wishes to Van Horn in the title series.

"I consider him to be a really good friend," O'Sullivan said. "I told him at the end I wished him the best of luck. He said he might give me a call over the next couple of days maybe for some advice or questions. But I really do like — I like playing Arkansas, because they're always well coached. They play extremely well. It's almost as if we're playing ourselves.

"They're playing at a very high level right now. I think getting Campbell to pitch the way he did today, obviously (Kacey) Murphy does his thing, and obviously Knight is one of the best pitchers in our league, and with their offense and defense, they've got a really good chance at this thing."

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