State of the Hogs: Strong start sets up pitching for regional

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, May 31, 2019
Arkansas starter Connor Noland smiles Friday, May 31, 2019, as he leaves the field after the third out of the Central Connecticut fifth inning during the Razorbacks' 11-5 win at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas starter Connor Noland smiles Friday, May 31, 2019, as he leaves the field after the third out of the Central Connecticut fifth inning during the Razorbacks' 11-5 win at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.

— It’s all about pitching when postseason baseball rolls around at the collegiate level. Get by early without burning up your studs.

Arkansas got by Central Connecticut, 11-5, in the opener of the NCAA Fayetteville Regional with only minimal work from Connor Noland and Kevin Kopps. Both should be ready to pitch again in the regional.

That was one of the highlights picked by Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn as he summarized why it was important to get a 9-2 lead through seven innings.

Noland worked one out into the sixth inning, throwing just 58 pitches, 42 for strikes. Kopps got five outs as the first man out of the bullpen, putting out a potential fire in the sixth when the game was still in doubt. He threw just 28 pitches, 20 for strikes.

Central Connecticut coach Charlie Hickey knew that was the big spot in the game. The Hogs committed three errors in the inning, but Kopps got a ground out and two strikeouts in the heart of the order.

“They knew they had someone down in the pen,” Hickey said. “They knew what they were doing. That’s what put them into the winning bracket.”

Noland, the freshman from Greenwood, got the start as Van Horn elected to save ace Isaiah Campbell for the second game. Noland made that strategy look brilliant with a steady diet of breakers for strikes.

“He really hadn’t thrown a lot of pitches in the sixth, but they seeing him third time around in the lineup,” Van Horn said. “Getting him out there means we might can use him again (in the regional).”

Noland’s breaker produced lots of ground balls. When the Devils did put the sweet part of the barrel on the ball, it seemed Dominic Fletcher gobbled them up with his gliding catches in center field.

“We hit some balls hard,” Hickey said. “But their center fielder made some of those balls look easy (for outs) that were more difficult.”

The Hogs got their offense rolling for the first time since the middle of the LSU series. There were 13 hits, three apiece by Heston Kjerstad and Trevor Ezell. Both hit no-doubt homers.

Kjerstad cracked a solo blast in the fourth that landed in the pine trees between the scoreboard and the batter’s eye in right-center field. Ezell’s blast was over the green seats behind the UA bullpen.

The best thing about the offensive surge was where it came in the game. The Blue Devils scored a single run in the fourth to make it a one-run game. Kjerstad answered in the bottom of the inning.

The Hogs answered a single run in the sixth with three. They answered a three-run homer in the eighth with Ezell’s two-run blast.

Arkansas had played three squeakers in the SEC Tournament. It was in shape at the end Friday for reliever Marshall Denton to mop up at the end to save the top closers.

To be sure, the Blue Devils don’t have top end arms. The Hogs didn’t see anyone crack 90 mph in the opener. That will change in the winner’s bracket final when they’ll see true stars, potential top draft picks.

Still, Hickey was impressed with what he saw from the Razorbacks. He thought his pitchers had done well until he added up the damage, 17 base runners.

“We struck out (only) three batters,” Hickey said. “The ball was in play a lot.”

That’s a far cry from what happened in the Texas A&M series when the Razorbacks fanned 18, 15 and 11 times to end the regular season.

A few days of rest after exiting the SEC tourney might have done the Hogs some good. I laughed when Kjerstad explained that “student-athletes” can wear down in a long season. So can baseball players.

That’s what Hickey said he saw in the third base dugouts, lots of good baseball players. He was even impressed by the light-hitting UA catcher, sophomore Casey Opitz.

“I admired the catcher,” Hickey said. “You don’t see gaudy numbers, but he controlled the pitchers really well.”

And, that’s why things are setting up well as the Hogs advance to the winner’s bracket final at 6 p.m. Friday.

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