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.
Noland does it again: Old QB knows how to take a hit
Arkansas pitcher Connor Noland returns to the dugout following the first inning of an NCAA Tournament game against North Carolina on Saturday, June 11, 2022, in Chapel Hill, N.C.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Following a gem Saturday at Boshamer Stadium, Arkansas pitcher Connor Noland — a former SEC quarterback — joked he had never been so bruised.
Three times in his last two starts, Noland has been struck by a line drive back to the mound. It happened Saturday when Mikey Madej lined a ball off the back of Noland’s right leg as he was following through on a pitch.
But like last week’s game against Grand Canyon at the Stillwater (Okla.) Regional when he threw out two batters who hit him in the seventh inning, Noland was not fazed by the first-inning blow against the Tar Heels. He found the ball behind him about 5 feet in front of the mound, turned and threw out Madej to end the first inning.
“I’ve been putting my body on the line for the last two weeks here,” Noland told ESPN after the game, “and I did the same thing to get out of that one.”
Noland’s quick thinking was the start to a masterful stretch against the Tar Heels during the Razorbacks’ 4-1 victory. It stranded the bases loaded and North Carolina never seriously threatened against him again in a scoreless 6 2/3-inning start.
“It was pretty amazing how fast he found it,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said of the ball that ricocheted off of Noland. “He knew right where it was, got to it and made a perfect throw.
“I said it last week, that’s why he was an all-conference defensive pitcher in the SEC. He’s a really good defender.”
Noland proved he was quite the pitcher, too, against the Tar Heels. Three of North Carolina’s first four hitters reached base against him, but he retired 20 of the next 23 before Colby Wilkerson singled with two outs in the seventh inning.
Wilkerson’s hit from the nine hole ended Noland’s outing after 89 pitches. Van Horn said Noland likely could have thrown 15 more pitches, but he didn’t want him to face the top of the Tar Heels’ batting order for a fourth time.
North Carolina leadoff hitter Angel Zarate, who singled on Noland's first pitch of the game, was due up after Wilkerson in the seventh inning. The left-handed hitting Zarate grounded out on the first pitch he saw from left-handed reliever Evan Taylor, which preserved a 4-0 lead.
“I just felt like we’ve got some good guys down there,” Van Horn said of his bullpen. “Evan Taylor was ready to go and left-on-left matchup there, and it worked out.”
The Tar Heels were ready for Noland’s fastball in the first inning and had several good swings against it, including some that were hit hard but foul. Beginning with the second inning, Noland began to throw more off-speed pitches — a slider and a curveball — to begin at-bats.
“He was great,” Van Horn said. "I just think he started mixing a lot better. They jumped on him a little bit early, but then he started mixing and they started probably trying to hit some type of breaking ball and he was throwing a couple of different ones....I thought he did a great job and I thought (catcher) Michael (Turner) called a great game.”
Noland allowed 6 hits, struck out 6 and threw 68.5% of his pitches for strikes. His four-pitch walk to Freshman All-American Vance Honeycutt in the first inning was his only walk of the game.
With first base open following Danny Serretti’s double, Noland only threw to the corners against Honeycutt, a freshman who set the Tar Heels’ single-season record with 25 home runs.
“It looked like they were pitching around Vance,” North Carolina coach Scott Forbes said.
Noland struck out Alberto Osuna for the second out of the inning before Madej lined the ball off of Noland.
The Tar Heels’ only base runners against Noland the rest of the way came on two-out singles in the second, third and seventh innings, and on a leadoff single by Serretti in the sixth. Serretti never advanced as Noland struck out Honeycutt looking, induced a fly out by Osuna and got Madej to ground out.
“Sometimes the pitcher can be the equalizer and I really thought he was,” Forbes said. “I was over there in the third-base box and I was hoping he would lose his feel for that slider, because if you can throw that type of pitch that’s elite in any count, it’s hard to manufacture runs.”
Noland pitched into the seventh inning for the second time this postseason. That follows a rough patch of games in which he failed to pitch past the fifth inning in consecutive starts against Auburn, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Florida, plus an eight-inning start against Ole Miss when he allowed a season-high 15 base runners.
Noland has been Arkansas' tone setter on the weekend for much of the season. He pitched into at least the sixth inning in 9 of 10 starts during a stretch from Feb. 25 to April 22, and the Razorbacks won 6 of 9 SEC openers when he was on the mound.
He has allowed one run in 13 2/3 innings in his NCAA postseason starts and reclaimed his groove at the most important time for Arkansas.
“I’ve been working hard in practice, doing all the right things and you’re starting to see it pay off,” Noland said. “I haven’t really changed a lot. Pitching-wise, I just make better pitches, execute and feel confident in my stuff.”
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