Connor Noland gets nod in elimination game
HawgBeat's coverage of the Razorbacks' Road to Redemption in Omaha is brought to you by Arkansas Oral Surgery, which has offices located in Conway and Russellville.
OMAHA, Neb. — In order for Saturday’s loss to Florida State not to be Isaiah Campbell’s last appearance in an Arkansas uniform, the Razorbacks will likely need bounce-back starts by a pair of freshmen.
That starts with right-hander Connor Noland, who head coach Dave Van Horn announced Sunday was starting the elimination game against No. 8 Texas Tech Monday afternoon at the College World Series.
It will be his first start since lasting just one inning in Game 2 of the Fayetteville Super Regional, when Ole Miss tagged him for four earned runs and beat Arkansas 13-5.
“He’s had a pattern where if he doesn’t have a good start, he comes back with another one that’s pretty good right after it,” Van Horn said. “Hopefully that’ll continue.”
Noland (3-5, 4.00 ERA) had posted a 1.58 ERA over his previous eight appearances heading into the matchup with the Rebels, so it was surprising to see him struggle so much.
The last time he had a start like that was way back on April 13, when he failed to record an out and gave up seven earned runs at Vanderbilt.
“I just wasn’t throwing pitches with intent,” Noland said about his struggles against Ole Miss. “I was trying to get ahead in counts and wasn’t throwing the best pitches I could. I need to go out there and fix that and throw pitches with great intent and try to make every pitch count.”
When his stuff is working, Van Horn said Noland is inducing a lot of ground balls because of the sink he has on his fastball, on top of his off-speed pitches.
That leads to some quick innings, as seen in his efficient starts in the final weekend of the regular season, at the SEC Tournament and in the Fayetteville Regional. He averaged just 12 pitches per inning over those three starts.
“He’s also got a good changeup and a slider, and he’s got a curveball with a little more downward action,” Van Horn said. “He can use all of them. When he gets it rolling, he can get into a little bit of a groove.”
Keeping the pitch count down led to him putting together consecutive starts of 7 2/3 and 7 innings against Mississippi State and Tennessee earlier this season, but the Razorbacks aren’t even asking for that Monday.
They are just hoping to get off to a good start against the Red Raiders before turning it over to a mostly fresh bullpen that can take on a little more work than normal because the format of the College World Series includes days between games.
“If he goes out and gets a few innings, that’s all we’re looking for,” Van Horn said. “If he gives us two good ones, three good ones, that’s fine. We’ll go with the next guy.”
As was the case when he got the ball in the first game of the regional, Noland said he’s not too worried about playing on such a big stage because he doesn’t really get nervous.
The 25,000-plus fans at TD Ameritrade will be twice as big as any crowd he played in front of at Baum-Walker Stadium, but less than half the size of the crowds he had as a quarterback for the Razorbacks last fall.
“I’ve been on a big stage, obviously, with football,” Noland said. “I’m just going to go out there and handle it. I’ll be anxious to get out there and throw the first pitch, but once I do that, I’ll be good.”
That composure - particularly for a guy who missed all of fall practice because of football and is in his first season of collegiate baseball - has really impressed his teammates.
“Coming in as a freshman and watching him play, he looks like a sophomore or junior,” center fielder Dominic Fletcher said. “He’s pretty comfortable up there. He keeps his emotions under control and does a good job.”
Shortstop Casey Martin echoed those sentiments.
“Considering he’s a freshman who played two sports, I think he’s done a fantastic job coming into a tough position like this,” Martin said. “It’s not easy, so you’ve just got to tip your cap to him. He’s done a great job. He’s kept a level head all year.”
On Monday, Noland will try to emulate Campbell’s performance in Saturday’s loss to Florida State. The Razorbacks’ ace earned a no decision despite throwing seven scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 2.13 for the season.
The redshirt junior also struck out 10, a school record for a College World Series game, while scattering five hits and two walks.
“If I give half the effort and hard work that Isaiah did yesterday, I’ll be fine,” Noland said. “That guy went out there and … That’s the way it should be every time, so I’m just going to try to be like him.”
Before beginning his professional career as the 76th overall pick by the Mariners with what will likely be a nearly million-dollar signing bonus, Campbell could feasibly pitch again for Arkansas in the first semifinal game Friday.
However, that would require Noland and the Razorbacks beating Texas Tech on Monday and then following it up with another win in an elimination game Wednesday.
Freshman left-hander Patrick Wicklander (6-2, 4.32 ERA) will probably get the nod in that game, which would be against Monday night’s Florida State-Michigan loser.
Much like Noland, he is coming off his worst start in a while, needing 40 pitches to record five outs before being relieved by Cody Scroggins in Game 3 of the Fayetteville Super Regional.
Casey Opitz has been behind the plate for most of Noland and Wicklander’s outings - the good and the bad - and he is confident the freshmen will deliver this week in Omaha.
“I have all the confidence in both,” Opitz said. “I know they’re ready for this. They’ve been going through it in the SEC all year and they’re ready for this kind of moment.”
First pitch Monday against Texas Tech is scheduled for 1 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN.