It used to irritate the heck out of me in the past when programs like LSU or Florida or others would hold their ace pitcher for a second-round game in tournament play, particularly if the Razorbacks were their likely next opponent.
My irritation really was more like jealously over the fact that their second-, third- even fourth-best pitcher still gave them a much better than even chance to advance in a first-round game, while Arkansas needed to throw their ace in first-round games in order to make sure or even to have a chance to remain in the winner’s bracket.
2019 NCAA Fayetteville Regional – Game 1
Who: 1. Arkansas vs. 4. Central Connecticut
When: 1 p.m. Friday, May 31
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
Watch: ESPN3 / ESPN App
Programs like LSU and Florida won and recruited at such a high level that they were able to employ a strategy that Arkansas just wasn’t able to risk doing in the SEC Tournament or in a NCAA Regional.
It’s nice to say that’s changed for the Razorbacks this year as the Hogs begin their quest to return to the College World Series. Last year Arkansas returned from Omaha, Neb. as the national runner-up. It’s the Razorbacks’ goal this year to go one step further and bring the championship hardware home to Fayetteville.
That starts at 1 p.m. Friday when the top-seeded Razorbacks (41-17) open play in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium against the fourth-seeded Central Connecticut Devils (30-21). In the other side of the bracket, No. 2 seed California (32-18) faces No. 3 seed TCU at 6 p.m. ESPN3 will live stream both games on its app.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn has opted to start freshman Connor Noland (2-4, 3.71) against Central Connecticut and holding ace Isaiah Campbell (10-1, 2.37) for the second-round matchup. Van Horn has rarely if ever held back his ace to open an NCAA Regional in his 17 seasons as the Hogs’ head coach.
The move speaks to the overall strength of Van Horn’s program as it appears to ben reaching its apex under his direction.
First, the move says a lot about the Razorbacks’ recruiting and development of its players that the Hogs have more than one pitcher Van Horn believes enough in to put on the mound and get them a win. In fact, Van Horn had choices. Left-hander Patrick Wicklander (5-2, 4.65) could have gotten the call instead of Noland, but the Devils have struggled to hit right-handers more than they have southpaws.
Second, with all due respect for Central Connecticut, the Devils aren’t a powerhouse opponent. Their RPI is 184th, and had they not won their conference tournament to earn an automatic NCAA bid, Central Connecticut would not have made the tournament.
On the surface, that has nothing to do with the Razorbacks. However, the Hogs earned a high seed by winning a share of the SEC Western Division and by playing consistently strong all season, as well as finishing top 5 in the polls and with a top 6 RPI.
The better your seed, the lesser your opponent.
So again Van Horn being able to hold his ace Campbell back for a second-round game speaks to the growing strength of Arkansas’ baseball program.
Hog fans have to take pride in the work Van Horn, his staff, and players have done with this program in inarguably the best baseball conference in America over the course of his tenure with the Razorbacks.
As good as the Razorbacks are this season, there are no guarantees. The best way for the Razorbacks to support Noland on the mound is for the every-day players to do their jobs at the plate.
While few have really wanted to admit it, the Razorbacks have been struggling at the plate since the final game of the LSU series. No doubt, much of that has to do with the pitching and defense Arkansas faced against the Tigers, Texas A&M, and then Ole Miss and Georgia in the SEC Tournament last wee, but when a team’s batting average drops from .311 to. .299 in two weeks, it seems like it is more than just the strength of the teams Arkansas’ been playing.
The return of lively at-bats for the Razorbacks Friday afternoon would no doubt make Noland’s job easier.
When on, the Razorbacks have one of the most potent lineups in the nation. Van Horn said he felt the Hogs may have been a little tired the last few weeks and a little too impatient at the plate.
They key to the hitting groove the Razorbacks worked their way into midseason was seeing a lot of pitching and fouling them off until getting the right one. That selectiveness and discipline at the plate has turned second baseman Jack Kenley into an effective and efficient hitter for the Hogs.
Natural talents like Casey Martin, Heston Kjerstad, and Dominic Fletcher may have been a bit guilty of swing for the fence too often, but it’s hard to put a bridle them to stridently. Returning to the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium after the better part of two weeks on the road might stoke the Hogs’ engine at the plate.
If the Razorbacks are to survive the Fayetteville Regional and host a Super Regional next weekend, the Hogs will have to hit the ball better than they have the last two weeks. The Razorbacks aren’t dominant enough on the mound or consistent enough in the field to smother all comers. The Razorbacks have to put up crooked numbers with consistency over the next two weeks to have any hope of returning to the College World Series this year.