FAYETTEVILLE – On a 42-degree Valentine’s Day season opener Connor Noland pitched hotter than the Fourth of July.
The Arkansas sophomore right-hander from Greenwood struck out a career high 11 against one walk and two hits and perched a 2-outs unearned run away from completing seven shutout innings of the Razorbacks’ 5-1 victory Friday afternoon over the Eastern Illinois Panthers of the Ohio Valley Conference at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Arkansas Preseason All-American junior right fielder Heston Kjerstad, 3 for 4 with two solo home runs and three RBI, and sophomore center fielder Christian Franklin, a 2-run home run boomed over left into the last row of seats, provided Arkansas’ five runs.
Friday’s game was witnessed by at least 5,883 whose tickets were scanned out of the 9,188 sold.
Temperatures into the 50s are expected with opening 3-game series for both teams continuing at 2 p.m. today and 1 p.m. Sunday.
After Grant Emme’s game-opening single, Noland immediately warmed the crowd and Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn by facing a minimum 18 Panthers through six innings.
Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz gunned both Emme in the first, and Dane Toppell, walking in the third, on inning-ending outs trying to steal.
Emme singled again leading off the seventh. He scored from third when shortstop Casey Martin erred on Matt Mackey’s 2-out grounder.
With the Hogs by then up 4-1, and Noland having thrown his 86th pitch, Van Horn summoned reliever Marshall Denton of Beebe to finish the seventh and pitch the eighth then employed Kevin Kopps for the ninth.
“His (Noland’s) stuff was really good,” Van Horn said. “His offspeed pitch was incredible today. I think he was throwing his slider in the upper 80,s 88 or 89, and his fastball low 90s, and they were having a hard time deciphering what pitch was coming at them. They were seeing fastball and it was a slider and he got a lot of swings and misses today.”
One of those days when everything worked.
“ I had all three pitches, fastball, curveball and slider,” Noland said. “I didn’t throw too many change-ups. But I felt like I could move the ball inside-outside and just control the at-bats when I needed to.”
Noland said he had the “rhythm” to work quickly. For a defense wanting to come in from the cold and Noland in rhythm, who could ask for anything more?
“He was ahead of just about every hitter and kept our defenders on their toes,” Van Horn said. “We had some quick innings.”
EIU right-handed starter Will Klein posted some quick innings, too. And even quicker velocity, consistently in the mid to high 90s topping at 98 miles per hour posted on the scoreboard.
“ I think if he stays healthy that he’ll pitch for a long time,” Van Horn said. “A big-bodied kid that ’s the top pro prospect in their league, He’s a big-time prospect. He (striking out seven through 5 2-3 against the SEC’s Hogs (top 10 or better in the national polls) probably made a little money today. He went through a pretty good lineup a few times.”
Klein was down 1-0 after the first inning. Leadoff batting junior college transfer left fielder Braydon Web cited by Van Horn for his 2-strike preceding Franklin’s home run in the 3-run fifth, and for catch robbing EIU’s Trey Sweeney of a leadoff hit in the ninth, walked in the first. A wild pickoff advanced Webb to second, setting him up to score when left-handed hitting Kjerstad took a Klein fast ball the other way grounding an RBI single through short.
“Heston is behind 1-2 and took a fastball and just did what he could do with it and drove in a run through what we call the 6-hole over there,” Van Horn said. “Just a professional type at bat.”
Kjerstad recalled, “ I was just trying to put the ball in play, sneak it through a hole and get a run on the board.”
Webb had singled leading off the fifth when the EIU staff convened a conference on the mound after Klein’s first pitch to Franklin.
The advice didn’t work. Franklin nearly cleared the seats beyond the left field bullpen pulling his 2-run home run.
“He’s shortened his swing up,” Van Horn said. “It’s not loopy anymore. It’s short and compact. He crushed that ball. Franklin does have power and we’ll see more of that.”
Kjerstad finished Klein following Franklin’s blast lining a solo shot into the right field bullpen. Kjerstad’s seventh-inning home run off reliever Blayke Cutts appeared ready to land in left center when the wind blew it just beyond the left field foul pole.
All in all, Van Horn said, “I’d call it a really good opener.”
(END OF STORY, LINESCORE FOLLOWS)
Eastern Illinois…000 000 100 – 1 4 2
Arkansas……….100 030 10x – 5 8 1
Klein, Cutts (6) and Knernschield; Noland, Denton (7), Kopps (9 and Opitz.
W-Noland (1-0. L-Klein (0-1).
HR-Arkansas: Franklin (1). Kjerstad, 2 (1). (2).
Photos courtesy of Crant Osborne