FAYETTEVILLE – With Caleb Bolden, Heston Tole and Connor Noland doing Arkansas’ pitching policing, the Razorbacks didn’t have to call the Kopps to beat the Ole Miss Rebels, 3-2 in Saturday’s semifinal of the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala.
Arkansas will play the Tennessee Volunteers, 4-0 victors over the Florida Gators in Saturday’s first semifinal, in Sunday’s 2 p.m.SEC Tournament championship game on ESPN2 in Hoover.
Both for if the Razorbacks advanced to Sunday’s championship game but especially not overextending him before next weekend’s Fayetteville Regional that Arkansas will host, Razorbacks reliever/SEC Pitcher of the Year Kevin Kopps was told he would not pitch Saturday against the Rebels having pitched three scoreless innings saving Thursday’s second-round 6-4 SEC Tournament victory over Vanderbilt.
Because of Bolden’s four shutout innings start, Tole rescuing the Razorbacks ending the Rebels 2-run fifth tallied on relievers Zebulon Vermillion and Caden Monke, then pitching a scoreless sixth before Noland notched his season’s first save pitching a scoreless three final frames, Coach Dave Van Horn could without consequence leave Kopps and his 10-0 record, nine saves and nationally leading 0.71 earned run average in the dugout.
“We weren’t going to pitch Kevin today no matter what,” Van Horn said as his nationally No. 1 SEC regular season Razorbacks improved to 45-10 overall and 3-0 in the SEC Tournament having Wednesday beaten Georgia 11-2 behind Lael Lockhart and then vanquishing Vandy earning Friday off. “We were going to go Connor a couple innings, but he threw so well, we said we’ve got to let him finish, and that’s what we did. I thought Noland was outstanding.”
Greenwood native Noland, a regular starter as a freshman on Arkansas’ 2019 College World Series team and the No. 1 starter for Arkansas’ terminated by covid pandemic 2020 campaign, but either sidelined completely or mostly ineffective because of an early season forearm injury, had only pitched seven innings in five appearances before sealing Tole’s victory.
Noland brought back old times said, his catcher Casey Opitz, after being the first to give Noland a postgame hug.
“I just said, ‘That’s you, and I kept repeating it,” Opitz said. “That’s the guy I’ve seen in the past, and that’s what he can do for this team. He showed it today. So I was pumped for him.”
Against Ole Miss, who had beaten Auburn, 7-4 in a Tuesday play-in game, lost 5-4 Wednesday to Vanderbilt, then clawed through the loser’s bracket 4-0 over Georgia Thursday and 4-1 over Vanderbilt Friday, Arkansas mustered but five hits.
Three sufficed. Cullen Smith’s 2-run home run over right after Cayden Wallace of Greenbrier scored two in the first.
For the game-winner, Jalen Battles’ 2-out sixth-inning double past third off losing reliever Jackson Kimbrell scoring designated hitter Charlie Welch who had walked leading off the inning.
Noland sealed it pitching hitless seventh through the ninth with four strikeouts vs. a walk quickly erased by a seventh-inning doubleplay initiated Arkansas shortstop Jalen Battles snagging 3-hole hitter Kevin Graham’s grounder up the middle, stepping on second and throwing out Graham at first.
“That’s a big momentum shift,” Noland said. “Obviously, when you get a double play on a ball off the middle. I thought it was through (for a hit) when I first threw it.”
Freshman Tole, SEC Tournament debuting mopping up Wednesday’s rout over Georgia with a scoreless eighth and ninth, and logging but nine innings for the season, was thrust into a precarious spot against Ole Miss.
Vermillion was tagged for Hayden Leatherwood’s leadoff single in the fifth then exited with what Van Horn called “a biceps cramp” upon throwing a wild pitch. Caden Monke relieved and got a called third strike that pinch-hitter Ben Van Cleve disputed. TJ McClants walked. Monke also walked Justin Bench, yielded Jacob Gonzalez’s game-tying 2-run double and was ordered intentionally to walk Graham.
Van Horn handed young Tole the ball with the bases and cleanup hitter Tim Elko and his 13 home runs awaiting.
“I said, ‘Before I give you the ball, I need to hear what you have to say,” Van Horn said. “He said, I’m good.’ I told him ‘Go out and fill up the zone and do what you do, see what happens, and he did a great job.”
Tole struck out Elko and got Hayden Dunhurst to ground out.
In the sixth between outs, Tole walked Leatherwood then got saved by the defense. For upon singling to right, McClants tried stretching it to second upon right fielder Ethan Bates’ throw to third.
Third baseman Wallace gunned it to second baseman Robert Moore for the inning ending out.
The Rebels ran themselves out of the fourth inning too. Via leadoff singles Graham and Elko were on first and second when the Rebels with Dunhurst batting tried a 2-strike double steal. Dunhurst struck out and Opitz nailed Graham at third.
Bolden finished his start with a flyout before Tole and Noland finished what Bolden started.