Campbell looks to erase struggles of '18

By: Matt Jones
Published: Friday, February 8, 2019
Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell throws during an exhibition game against Wichita State on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell throws during an exhibition game against Wichita State on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— Isaiah Campbell realizes he did not live up to the expectations of Arkansas fans last season, but what fans may not realize is that Campbell had set much higher goals for himself.

“I didn’t hit my expectations at all,” he said. “I didn’t come close.”

The right-handed pitcher had hoped to be an All-American and a high-round draft pick in 2018 and to be playing professional baseball by now.

But Campbell is back in Fayetteville for a rare fourth season in college baseball. A redshirt season for bone spurs in 2017 provides him with another year of negotiating leverage in the draft, so he is one of the only holdovers from a 2015 signing class that included Blaine Knight, Grant Koch, Kacey Murphy, Eric Cole and others who as juniors were so instrumental in a national runner-up finish last season.

Campbell turned down at least six-figure money from professional teams offering to draft him high last June in order to return to Arkansas this season. It was a move that benefitted the Razorbacks' past two staff aces, Trevor Stephan and Knight, who each returned to school with another year of negotiating power after being eligible for the draft.

Stephan became a third-round pick of the New York Yankees and Knight was a third-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles.

In two scrimmages so far this preseason, Campbell has pitched seven innings and allowed one run - a solo home run by preseason All-American Casey Martin - on four hits. He has struck out 12.

It is the type of dominance Arkansas coaches hope to see from their projected Friday starter and an indication his struggles of last season might be behind him.

Campbell’s personal 2018 campaign had the feel of a roller-coaster ride, full of highs and lows and twists and turns.

The regular season ended with him missing a scheduled start at Georgia because of swelling in his foot that began when he awoke from an afternoon nap and resulted with him standing on crutches for two days. The season began with a case of food poisoning from a popular Mexican grill that caused Campbell to lose 12 pounds in three days.

After he allowed one run and threw 108 pitches in a career-long eight innings during an early-season game against Kentucky last March, Campbell said his total weight loss of 22 pounds had helped his endurance. In hindsight, the weight loss caught up with him later in the season when his recovery time was taking longer than normal.

He has gained 20 pounds since the end of last season and is throwing harder — a 93-94 mph fastball and an upper-80s cutter. He also has added a splitter that he throws in the high 80s.

With some exceptions, Campbell’s starts last season followed a similar arc: dominant the first time through the order with a rapid unraveling somewhere in the middle innings that sent Arkansas relievers scurrying to get warmed up in a hurry. Thought to be a contender to pitch on Fridays, Campbell became the team's No. 3 weekend starter, and his short starts turned many series finales into Johnny Wholestaff efforts.

In most instances, the wheels came off for Campbell when runners reached base.

“It was a lot of mental, not slowing the game down,” Campbell said. “When games were going good, I was in full control of everything — my mind, my body and everything.

“But, straight up, when I was sucking during games, the game sped up on me, and the mental side would hit me all at once, and I wasn’t able to control and take that deep breath to get back to my normal self.”

It happened in many of the Razorbacks’ biggest games. Campbell didn’t make it through the third inning in Game 3 of the College World Series Finals against Oregon State, a 5-0 loss in which Beavers freshman Kevin Abel allowed two hits in a complete game to give the Beavers their third national championship and the Razorbacks their second runner-up finish.

One week after shutting down Kentucky last March, Campbell allowed four hits and walked four batters in a six-run inning at Florida, a 17-2 Arkansas loss that was the worst of Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn’s 16-year tenure. It was learned the next day that Campbell had inflammation in his throwing elbow, which kept him out of the rotation for a big series the following week at Ole Miss.

He walked the first three of a school-record 15 in a Sunday game against Alabama, which Arkansas remarkably won. He gave up a four-run inning at LSU in a series-clinching loss in the regular season, and after five brilliant innings gave up a hit and a home run in consecutive at-bats against the Tigers in a 2-1 loss that bounced the Razorbacks from the SEC Tournament semifinals.

“At times I let my teammates down with how I performed on the weekends,” Campbell said. “It was just tough to try to live up to my expectations and not hit them.

“I didn’t have the season everyone was expecting of me. I showed glimpses of it but just wasn’t consistent. It gave me a lot of motivation to go into the offseason. I hit the weight room hard.

“The motivation is there, especially with how the season ended watching Oregon State dog pile instead of us dog piling.”

The inability to pitch effectively from the stretch caused then-Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson to declare after the season that Campbell would not pitch from the windup in the fall.

Campbell pitched from the windup in exhibition scrimmages against Wichita State and Arkansas-Little Rock, but he spent much of practice working exclusively on the stretch.

“I’ve been doing a lot in the stretch,” Campbell said. “Even if I’m not throwing a bullpen, I’ve been doing a lot of dry work out of the stretch, just to get more comfortable and figuring out what makes me most comfortable.”

For all his struggles, Campbell did turn in some great — and often timely — performances last year. He twice shut down South Carolina, including four strong innings pitching with a big lead in the winner-take-all game of the NCAA super regional in Fayetteville.

And he atoned for the bad start at Florida by shutting down the Gators in the national semifinal, a 5 1/3-inning start in which he struck out eight batters in a 5-2 win that sent Arkansas to the national championship series.

Campbell got into some trouble in the fifth inning of that game, allowing two hits, hitting a batter and throwing a wild pitch with two outs. But coaches allowed him to work through it and he struck out a batter with a runner in scoring position to get out of the inning with the lead.

He threw 84 pitches that night and all but three were either a fastball or cutter.

Matt Hobbs, the Razorbacks’ new pitching coach who spent the past four seasons at Wake Forest, said he watched the game from a hotel while on the road recruiting for the Demon Deacons.

“I do remember seeing Campbell against Florida,” Hobbs said. “I thought to myself, ‘If they get that guy back, watch out.’

“I’ve watched his video over the past few weeks. He’s got big-league stuff. He’s a tough competitor.”

The pressure is on Campbell to perform this season. He is rated the No. 65 prospect in the 2019 MLB draft by Baseball America, but with Knight and Murphy departed to pro baseball, Campbell also is the only Arkansas pitcher back with significant starting experience.

He’ll most likely get the ball for the Razorbacks’ season opener against Eastern Illinois next Friday and for many series openers throughout the year. He and redshirt sophomore pitcher Kevin Kopps were voted in the offseason as Arkansas’ two team captains.

“This year I’ve got a different demeanor — more relaxed on the mound, having fun and taking one pitch at a time,” Campbell said. “The only difference is that I’ve got to be a leader for a staff that’s younger than it was last year. We were blessed to be an upperclassman-led pitching staff last year where everyone knew what to do and you didn’t have to say much.”

Van Horn said he has seen Campbell turn into a “big-time leader” since the Razorbacks returned home from last year’s College World Series.

“He was too quiet in the past,” Van Horn said, “but he’s stepped up and become vocal.”

The next step is to make more noise on the mound.

This story originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated

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