By Otis Kirk
Arkansas played its best game of the season on Saturday in the first round of the College World Series defeating Stanford 17-2.
Arkansas (47-20) banged out 21 hits and got a great pitching performance from Connor Noland to advance to the second round on Monday night. Dave Van Horn was obviously very pleased following the game.
“I thought we played just a fantastic game,” Van Horn said. “I mean, started on the mound with pitching. Outstanding. A lot of strikes. Defense behind him was outstanding as well. Turned a couple of double plays. Made all the plays that pretty much you would expect our team to make and maybe a couple you didn’t expect. We did a great job.
“And offensively swung the bat extremely well up and down the lineup. Got production 1 through 9. I think everybody might have had a hit today or a couple. And just played a really good ball game.”
Noland pitched 7.2 innings, allowed six hits, two run, walked one and amazing only fanned a hitter. He faced 28 hitters and threw 79 pitches. Noland’s only struggle came in the first inning when he allowed a lead-off home run to Brock Jones. Brett Barrera and Braden Montgomery followed with one-out singles. But then Noland got Kody Huff to ground into a double play to end the threat. Noland talked about how he stuck to the gameplan.
“I knew they were going to swing the bat,” Noland said. “They’re an aggressive team, they like to put the ball in play. We had the wind blowing in. I get a lot of ground balls normally.
“I just stuck to the plan. They’re very aggressive. Didn’t get a lot of two-strike counts. They just put the ball in play, and I let the defense work behind me.”
Braydon Webb started the game off with a triple to right field. He then scored on a sacrifice fly by Brady Slavens to give the Hogs a brief 1-0 lead. After Jones tied the game in the bottom of the first with his home run the remainder of the game belonged to Arkansas.
The Razorbacks broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the fifth when Chris Lanzilli lifted a three-run blast over the fence in center field for a 4-1 lead. His shot came off Stanford starter Alex Williams, who had praised the Cardinal offense compared to Arkansas on Friday. Did that quote help the team get motivated?
“It didn’t add much motivation,” Lanzilli said. “Coach Van Horn has been saying, stay on us. We’re all about us the past few weeks. And we’ve been hot the whole time. It’s been working. We don’t think about what they think. We think about what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. And it’s definitely working.”
The Hogs added two more runs in the top of the fifth for a 6-1 lead. Robert Moore singled to right field, then Jalen Battles walked before Peyton Stovall hit into a fielder’s choice. Battles was out at second and Moore advanced to third on the play. A wild pitch then allowed Moore to score and Stovall go to second base. Zack Gregory then sent a single into left field that plated Stovall. Van Horn is glad to see the Arkansas bats get going this postseason.
“Hitting’s really hard,” Van Horn said. “And sometimes you just go through a period where it’s not going your way. Their team’s pitching well. Maybe you’re a little tired. There’s a lot of things that play into it because we don’t just play once a week. We play a lot. We play a lot of games.
“I’ve said this before, maybe just someone who watches baseball a little bit, they don’t understand why you get beat by teams you’re supposed to beat or lose on a Tuesday night because you’re not playing all your guys or whatever. It’s because we’re trying to make sure we have guys ready to play at this time of year, in some cases.”
It was Moore again in the top of the seventh that helped the Razorbacks put three more runs on the scoreboard. Moore started the inning off with a double to right field. Battles then singled into center field to get Moore home. Then with two outs, Webb walked moving Battles to second. Slavens singled into center field allowing Battles to score and Webb to second. Cayden Wallace then smashed a double that allowed Webb to score for a 9-1 lead.
“Robert, great day, three walks, double, single,” Van Horn said. “And then even his groundout advanced two runners with no outs. So it was a very productive at-bat. That’s what we’re trying to do right now.
“He’s hitting in the 6 hole. A switch hitter. Hitting after Lanzilli. If we can keep him going, it’s big. And you can go on down the lineup a little bit more. Just a lot of production. But if Robert’s going, it really helps us.”
The Razorbacks added two more runs in the top of the eighth. Moore drew a one-out walk. Battles then sent a double into left field. Stovall then hit a two-RBI single to give the Hogs an 11-1 lead.
After Stanford scored a run in the bottom of the eighth, Arkansas then plated six more runs in the top of the ninth. The big hit was a Wallace shot over the fence in center field for two runs. Arkansas is now 6-1 in the NCAA Tournament. Van Vorn talked about what has been the difference since his team dropped six of the final eight games prior to the tournament.
“What I’ve seen from them is a team that was disappointed how the regular season ended,” Van Horn said. “And once we got into postseason play, I just felt like the team, they didn’t want to fail. And they took a step forward, got over all the negativity and just said, we’re going to fight you to the end and hopefully it will go our way.
“Offensively, I’ve seen us hit the ball in the middle of the ball a lot more, advance runners, move runners around, use the whole field. We had a bunch of backside hits today, sac fly. I mean, we’re running a pretty good offense right now. And I don’t know.”
The team went from being a likely national seed to having to travel to the Stillwater Regional and Chapel Hill Super Regional to get to Omaha. What has Van Horn changed?
“But as far as hands off, I just try to give them some advice on how to handle everything, whether it’s the Regional or the Super Regional or even up here,” Van Horn said. “But as far as changing anything, not really changed much. Maybe just the way we start our pitchers, other than that it’s the same old stuff. We did make an adjustment in the lineup. Flipped it. And it’s worked.”
Noland (8-5) picked up the win. Williams (8-4) took the loss. Arkansas stays in the winner’s bracket and will face the winner of Ole Miss and Auburn on Monday night at 6 p.m. on ESPN. Ole Miss and Auburn played the night game on Saturday.