By Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas hardly could have been more on pitching off.
Saving ace right-hander Isaiah Campbell for what will be tonight’s 6 o’clock winner’s bracket game against the third-seeded TCU Horned Frogs and TCU ace lefty Nick Lodolo, the top-seeded Razorbacks beat,11-5 the fourth-seeded Northeast Conference Tournament champion Central Connecticut State Blue Devils in Friday afternoon’s first round game of the 4-team double-elimination Fayetteville Regional before a paid 10,037 with 9,858 ticket scanned attending at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Coach Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks prevailed behind freshman starter Connor Noland of Greenwood, reliever Kevin Kopps and a 13-hit attack paced by right fielder Heston Kjerstad, 3 for 4 with a double, mammoth solo home run and two RBI, and first baseman Trevor Ezell of Bryant, 3 for 5 with a 2-run home run, three RBI and a stolen base.
TCU, 33-26, and the Big 12 Tournament runner-up, advanced to the winners’ bracket trouncing the California Golden Bears, 13-2 in Friday night’s first-round game.
California, 32-19 of the Pac 12, plays Central Connecticut, 30-22, in the noon loser’s bracket game today.
The Fayetteville Regional, whose winner will play in one of eight Super Regionals next weekend determine the Elite Eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series, continues with a Sunday afternoon loser’s bracket final and Sunday night championship game and if necessary, a Monday winner take all championship game.
After striking out in the first, Bowens belted a long sacrifice fly off Noland in the fourth and should have been retired by Kopps but for shortstop Casey Martin fumbling the ball before he could throw it to first during the 3-error inning with Ezell charged with two miscues.
Bowens belted a 3-run home run off reliever Marshall Denton in the eighth but Ezell’s 2-run home run in the Arkansas eighth gave Denton the cushion for a CCSU ninth.
The hitting was big for a 42-17 Razorbacks team struggling to hit its last two SEC regular season at games Texas A&M and mustering but five hits each game going 1-2 in last week’s SEC Tournament at Hoover, Ala.
“Just a good job by the team kind of getting it going better offensively,” Van Horn said. “We only left four runners on base today so we got some big hits and we did a nice job of getting them around and scoring.”
But it was Noland’s arm not the bats opening Van Horn’s postgame conversation.
“I thought it started with Connor coming out and just throwing a lot of strikes,” Van Horn said. “He got through the first couple of innings with probably less than 20 pitches. He had a lot of ground balls When he’s getting ground balls he’s the got the 2-seamer sinking and running. He pitches to contact and that’s what we wanted him to do.”
Noland set out following the script.
“I was just attacking the zone today,” Noland said. “Throwing strikes, filling it up, keeping them off balance with off-speeds. I think that’s just really been the key for me having a successful outing. Just keeping them off balance and keeping them guessing throughout the outing.”
Some nice plays by center fielder Dominic Fletcher, “he makes the hard ones look easy,” CCSU Coach Charlie Hickey said, and a would-be RBI single up the middle turned into an out by shortstop Martin helped, too.
So did Kopps, coming in with runners at second and third via errors and one out in the sixth to get Bowens to ground into what should have become a second-out RBI instead of safe at first.
Kopps then consecutively struck out Dave Matthews and and Buddy DeWaine.
“He (Kopps) came in and made some terrific pitches in some big spots,” Hickey said. “That was our window to try to close and we didn’t accomplish that.”
Van Horn explained though Noland didn’t give up a hit in the sixth he didn’t want him facing Bowens a third time. And Noland only throwing 58 pitches, Van Horn said pulling him then might allow Noland some pitching availability for Sunday or if Arkansas is Monday involved in a winner take all championship game.
“The middle of their order was going to be on him a third time and we just felt like it was time to go with Kopps,” Van Horn said. “The game was little too tight for us and they were battling. Kevin came in and got a ground ball and a couple of strikeouts and dd the job.”
“Props to him,” Noland said. “I appreciate him coming in and locking them down.”
Arkansas took a 2-0 lead off losing starter Brandon Fox in the second. Kjerstad and Jack Kenley singled consecutively Kenley taking second on left fielder Peyton Stephens’ weak offline throw trying to get Kjerstad at third. Casey Opitz’s virtual swinging bunt scored Kjerstad and advanced Kenley to score on a wild pitch.
Kjerstad answered Bowen’s fourth-inning sacrifice fly with his home run bashed way over right.
“He threw me a fastball down the middle and I took a good swing and the ball got out of there,” Kjerstad said.
Christian Franklin’s double and Ezell’s single opened Arkansas’ 3-run fifth tallied on a passed ball and doubles by Matt Goodheart and Kjerstad.
Franklin and Ezell accounted for RBI singles in the 3-run sixth that also included an unearned run.
Ezell capped it homering off lefty Andrew Braun in the eighth.
“They had 17 baserunners so that keeps the pressure on you,” Hickey said. “There’s a reason they are ranked No. 5 in the nation.”
The Fayetteville Regional, whose winner will play in one of eight Super Regionals next weekend determining the Elite Eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha, continues with a Sunday afternoon loser’s bracket final and Sunday night championship game, and if necessary, a Monday winner take all championship game.
Central Connecticut…000 101 030 – 5 5
Arkansas……………..020 133 02x – 11 13 3
Fox Mitchell (5), Braun (8) and Loda; Noland, Kopps (6) Denton (8) and Opitz.
W-Noland (3-4). L-Fox (3-6).
(HR- Central Connecticut: Bowens (5). HR-Arkansas: Kjerstad (15). Ezell (9).