Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Razorbacks find more in bullpen
Arkansas pitcher Connor Noland celebrates an out during an SEC Tournament game against Ole Miss on Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (SEC pool photo)
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas will be down one, maybe two pitchers during its home NCAA regional this week.
Right hander Peyton Pallette is out for the season with an arm injury suffered May 21 against Florida, and right hander Zebulon Vermillion’s status is unknown after he removed himself three pitches into a relief appearance against Ole Miss last Saturday at the SEC Tournament with what was described as bicep cramping. Vermillion was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Tuesday, but results of that test have not been made public.
Pallette and Vermillion have served as starters and relievers this season, and together have accounted for 106 1/3 of the team’s 497 innings pitched.
Despite the injuries, the No. 1-ranked Razorbacks (46-10) feel good about their pitching entering the Fayetteville Regional opener against NJIT (26-22) on Friday. The regional field also includes Nebraska (31-12) and Northeastern (36-10).
During an eight-game win streak that includes seven games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament, the Razorbacks have pitched as consistently as they have all season and not allowed more than four runs.
The Razorbacks beat Tennessee 3-2 on May 16, outscored Florida 19-7 during a three-game series, and beat Georgia, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Tennessee at the SEC Tournament by a combined 27-10.
During the four-game stretch against Florida and Georgia, Arkansas’ pitchers had 59 strikeouts and five walks.
“I feel like we’ve done a good job of throwing strikes, really,” Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said. “I think if you look at the strike-throwing numbers inside the conference, that’s been impressive to me. I think we’re third in fewest number of walks in the league. You don’t usually go into the SEC and start pounding the zone when you haven’t been, so I feel like our guys have done a really good job of attacking the strike zone.”
The late-season emergence of right handers Connor Noland and Heston Tole has helped offset the injuries to Pallette and Vermillion. Tole and Noland combined to pitch 6 2/3 innings of scoreless relief during the SEC Tournament last week in Hoover, Ala.
Tole, a freshman, pitched the final two innings of the Razorbacks’ 11-2 victory over Georgia last Wednesday. He was called on again during the tournament semifinals against Ole Miss and got Arkansas out of a bases-loaded jam to preserve a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning.
Noland, a starter his first two seasons who missed nearly two months this year with a strained forearm, relieved Tole and pitched the final three innings of the 3-2 victory over Ole Miss that sent Arkansas to the championship game.
“They’ve had to step up and get in there and do a job that maybe they weren’t expected to do at the beginning of the year,” Hobbs said. “I don’t think anybody at the beginning of the season had Heston Tole throwing with the bases loaded in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament needing to get us two outs, but he did. It’s a testament to those guys, just staying with it and working.
“We’ll see what happens with Zeb. The loss of Peyton is a huge loss for us. But those guys stepping into those roles and being able to aggressively attack the strike zone is one of the reasons we were able to finish it off and win the league in the regular season, and then go through the conference tournament.”
Noland has been sharp since he allowed six runs and recorded just two outs at LSU on May 1. Hobbs said he chalks that performance to it being Noland’s first game after his injury — a “perfect storm” because LSU was free swinging at the time, down by 13 runs.
“When Connor went down at the beginning of the season, it would have been easy just to cash it in,” Hobbs said. “And then especially after the LSU outing it would have been easy to say, ‘OK, I’m not going to come back from this,’ but he didn’t. He just kept working and it’s been real impressive.”
Since the LSU game, Noland has pitched three times against Arkansas State, Florida and Ole Miss, and has allowed 1 run, 2 hits and 1 walk, and struck out 7 in 5 innings.
Noland entered the Arkansas State game in the ninth inning with the Razorbacks ahead 8-4. He did not allow a base runner and struck out two in a non-save situation, and Hobbs said the outing was a confidence booster.
“It’s basically a save situation because Arkansas State had just scored three in the inning prior to that,” Hobbs said. “You’re in a pretty tight game and he went out there and absolutely dominated for an inning. You start to see, ‘Now there’s stuff coming out of his hand.’ He’s throwing strikes and not lucking into outs — it’s stuff coming out of his hand at 92, 93 mph. Then he did the same thing against Florida. They made some contact, but it wasn’t really hard contact.
“The stuff is way better. As crazy as it sounds when you look at the numbers, his numbers aren’t as good as they have been the rest of his career, but a lot that has to do with the injury. But the stuff is better. You’re not seeing as many of those 88s, 89s with the fastballs. You're starting to see more 92s, 93s."
Noland switched to a one-seam fastball that has some “serious sink,” Hobbs said, after he lost some feel for a four-seam fastball. His breaking pitches have also added some movement.
“He threw some curveballs the other day that I haven’t seen him able to throw in his career,” Hobbs said.
Based on recent outings, Noland has given Arkansas a second option to ace reliever Kevin Kopps at the back end of games.
“It’s huge for the team,” Hobbs said. “Now you see there’s another guy who can finish and can take some pressure off your (Ryan) Costeiu and (Caden) Monke and those guys who have thrown a lot of innings in the middle to get to Kevin. Now you add in a Heston Tole and a Connor Noland — I mean, Connor, he’s got Omaha experience as a starter and has pitched in regionals and super regionals already in his career. He has an insane amount of experience. We feel really good about him in the middle to the end of a game.”
Tole was going to redshirt this season, but caught his coaches’ attention by pitching well against some of Arkansas’ best hitters during practices in late March and early April. Hobbs said Tole’s slider improved and his fastball velocity went from 85-87 to 89-92 mph.
“He just kept getting better when we’d throw him in bullpens and work with him,” Hobbs said. “He started to show us some real improvement and we kind of had to make a decision.”
He made his debut against Arkansas-Little Rock on April 7 and his SEC debut against Texas A&M on April 17. He was brought into the game during increasingly more high-pressure situations as the season evolved.
“He’s making pitches that he wasn’t able to make two or three weeks ago,” Hobbs said. “He’s a young kid, so he’s still going to have his ups and downs as he goes through it, but he’s certainly pitching really well right now.”
Perhaps the only area of concern for Arkansas’ pitching staff in Hoover was the performance of Caden Monke, whose two appearances included 39 pitches, but only 13 for strikes. Monke, a left hander who has pitched 25 times and has been one of the Razorbacks’ most trusted relievers, has worked on his mental approach this week in the bullpen.
“I think it was something that just snowballed on him a little bit,” Hobbs said. “He’d miss a pitch here and that affects three pitches down the road because he’s still thinking about the pitch he missed. He’s always done a really good job of slowing the game down when things spiral a little bit on him, and for some reason he just didn’t do it in those two outings.”
Unlike some teams that win a conference tournament, the Razorbacks did not have to exhaust their pitching staff in Hoover. Lael Lockhart, who had a seven-inning start against Georgia and a one-inning relief appearance four days later in the 7-2 win over Tennessee in the championship game, pitched Arkansas’ most innings at the tournament.
Kopps pitched six innings over two appearances, but needed only 69 pitches to record 18 outs.
“I think all the coaches would probably agree…that we felt as good as we've felt all year about where we're at on the mound,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said after the tournament.
Lockhart has been another key to Arkansas’ recent success. He retired the first 20 batters he faced against Georgia and pitched into a scoreless fifth inning during the series finale at Tennessee on May 16.
The left-handed transfer from Houston had struggled some prior to the start at Tennessee. In the series finale at LSU two weeks earlier, Lockhart allowed three runs and recorded only one out.
“The reason he came here in the first place was to make a run and play on a really good team,” Hobbs said. “After the LSU outing it was a real gut check for him. ‘Why am I here? What am I doing here? Did I come here to just pitch, or did I come here to make a difference?’ Since the day after that outing he’s been a different person. It shows up on the field in how he’s pitched. He has pitched unbelievably well.”
In recent weeks, Lockhart and right handers Caleb Bolden and Jaxon Wiggins have become go-to starters behind staff ace Patrick Wicklander. Because of the starter-like innings being pitched by Kopps each weekend, the No. 2 and 3 starters have not been asked to pitch deep into games.
“If you get six or seven innings out of a starter, you’d call that a quality start,” Hobbs said of Kopps’ production. “I think most people want what they are used to. Would I like to have three guys on the weekend throw eight innings? Of course I would.
“But if you don’t, what’s the other option? The other option is to figure it out any way you can, and I don’t care what part of the game the outs come from from our pitchers. It doesn’t have to be normal from the standpoint of what baseball is used to, we just need to get the outs. If Kevin throws five or six innings a weekend, he is giving you starter-type innings, he’s just giving them to you at the most important parts of two games.
“You have to adapt to your personnel. You don’t have to force feed what you’d like, you have to adapt to what you have. I think that’s one of the great things about our group, and the pitchers have to be given a lot of credit for this because they have to pitch in a completely different way than they’re used to.”
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