Connor Noland gets starting nod, pitching staff coming together
FAYETTEVILLE — Connor Noland had to wait eight weeks to make his first start at quarterback for Arkansas. He’ll only have to wait a day or two for his first start on the mound.
Head coach Dave Van Horn revealed at the Swatter’s Club Monday that the true freshman right-hander would likely start Saturday or Sunday against Eastern Illinois and have a pitch count between 70-75.
“I knew his stuff was going to be good, I knew he had a good breaking ball,” Van Horn said. “But it’s all the little things, like holding runners. He picked a runner off first the other day. Fielding his position, he’s been outstanding so far. He’s fairly quick to the plate.”
It isn’t too uncommon for the Razorbacks to start a freshman in the opening weekend rotation, as it happened as recently as 2016 with Blaine Knight.
What makes Noland’s case so rare is that he has only been with the team for a couple of months. He missed all of fall practice because he was playing quarterback for the football team.
“Really for the last year straight, or since his high school career ended, it’s been a football,” Van Horn said. “To pick up a little white ball and be able to throw it where you want it, to me that’s really impressive.”
Noland has been dominant in three intrasquad scrimmage appearances. According to HawgBeat’s unofficial statistics, he allowed only two earned runs on four hits and two walks in 10 2/3 innings for a 1.69 ERA and 0.56 WHIP.
Although his stuff isn’t overpowering, Noland’s command has been excellent. Nearly two-thirds of his pitches have been strikes and the result has been 13 strikeouts and a .105 opponent batting average. Van Horn said he hasn’t looked like a freshman.
“He’s come in and just thrown the ball extremely well,” Van Horn said. “He’s had three outings against our hitters and he’s pitched like he’s a little older than that.”
The emergence of Noland has been key for the Razorbacks, who are trying to figure out how to replace one of the top 1-2 punches in the SEC last year in Knight and Kacey Murphy.
Redshirt junior Isaiah Campbell was the third starter in 2018 and is expected to fill the role of staff ace. He will start opening day Friday and also be on a pitch count of 70-75.
Who will join Campbell and Noland in the rotation against Eastern Illinois remains a mystery. When asked about the third spot, Van Horn recites a laundry list of names: Jacob Kostyshock, Kole Ramage, Cody Scroggins and Patrick Wicklander.
“They’ve all been throwing really well,” Van Horn said. “So what you see this weekend might be different than what you see against USC and different from next weekend. I just want to make sure that we have a deep, strong bullpen. That’s a big concern of mine.”
It sounds like Wicklander, a true freshman left-hander from California, will begin the season in the bullpen, but he has the potential to eventually work himself into the rotation.
That leaves a trio of veterans competing for the final rotation spot against Eastern Illinois.
Kostyshock has struggled in limited action over his first two years with the Razorbacks, posting a 6.52 ERA in 19 1/3 innings, but seems to be coming on strong. After a solid summer and fall, he has given up only one hit and one walk while striking out 12 across eight innings in two preseason scrimmages open to the public.
Ramage was the biggest freshman contributor on the staff last season, throwing 36 innings, and could be a long reliever or starter this year. He had a rough outing in his first preseason scrimmage, but counted back to allow only one earned run in seven innings over his last two - which included coming out of the bullpen Saturday.
Now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Scroggins is “better than ever,” Van Horn said, and could fill many roles for the Razorbacks. In addition to starting, he could come out of the bullpen in long relief or as a set up guy. He could even close games when preseason All-American Matt Cronin isn’t available.
When those guys aren’t starting games, they will likely be helping fill the bullpen void left by Barrett Loseke and Jake Reindl, who combined for 109 1/3 innings and each made a team-high 27 appearances last season.
There will also be a handful of freshmen other than Noland and Wicklander who contribute in 2019.
“Some of the freshman pitchers are really going to help us this year,” Van Horn said. “That’s always nice for coaches when you know you have some young arms to build around for the future and we’re seeing that right now.”
Unlike last season when Murphy and Cronin were virtually the only left-handed pitchers on the staff, the Razorbacks should have more options this year. Cronin is back to close games and Wicklander can start, but they’ll also use Caden Monke, Evan Taylor and Liam Henry.
All three of those freshmen can touch 90 miles per hour, but they struggle with their command and are still developing a third pitch, as they either have a good curveball or a good changeup - not both.
Jacob Burton is probably the top freshman right-hander other than Noland. He can pump his fastball up to 96 miles per hour, but needs to improve his secondary stuff to keep hitters off balance.
“He actually has a pretty good curveball, but he throws it in the zone a little too nice,” Van Horn said. “He needs to start it in the zone where they think it’s in the zone and it runs out of the zone and they swing at it.”
Another veteran who could have a big role out of the bullpen is redshirt sophomore Angus Denton.
He threw 10 1/3 innings as a true freshman in 2017 before redshirting last season so he could develop. With a side-arm delivery, he is someone Van Horn could use to face a right-handed hitter or two.
“We feel like he’s going to be a good piece of our puzzle,” Van Horn said. “He’s a kid that can throw almost every day. He’s tough (and) his arm bounces back, so we’re excited about that.”