BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
STILLWATER, Okla. – If Arkansas goes on to win the NCAA Baseball Tournament Stillwater Regional, it may very well look back to the second inning on Friday’s 7-1 win over Grand Canyon University.
Moments after Razorback starter and winning pitcher Connor Noland whiffed a batter and catcher Michael Turner gunned down a runner stealing for a double play, Arkansas pounced for four two-out runs.
The strike-them-out, throw-them-out double play clearly electrified the Razorbacks, who had lost four straight and six of eight coming into Friday.
“It was big,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “The dugout erupted on it. And the throw was incredible. Not only was it on the money, it looked like the batter was almost in his way in my opinion.
“If he hadn’t thrown him out, I would’ve ask for interference or a review on that if possible. But he threw on the money with some velocity. And that was a great play.”
The outburst lifted the second-seeded Razorbacks (39-18) into a contest Saturday night at 6 p.m. with Oklahoma State (40-20), who downed third-seeded Missouri State 10-5 on Friday night.
“You know, we hadn’t won in a while,” Van Horn said. “It’s been a couple of weeks, and it’s a good feeling, I’ll tell you that.”
The game turned quickly in the second for Grand Canyon (41-20), who plays Missouri State Saturday at noon in an elimination game.
“We had nobody on, and then we go on to score four runs,” Van Horn said. “Amazing inning. I thought the hitters did an incredible job of fouling off pitches, working the count. I mean, just getting the pitch count way up. And then we came through with a couple of big hits,” Van Horn said.
That explosion came against Grand Canyon ace Daniel Avitia (8-5), who was the WAC’s pitcher and freshman of year.
Avitia allowed a two-out homer to Cayden Wallace in the opening inning while throwing 24 pitches, but would toss 43 in the second inning before being pulled.
Peyton Stovall singled with two outs, Zach Gregory was hit by a pitch and Braydon Webb’s single made it 2-0.
After Brady Slavens walked to load the bases, Avitia drilled Wallace with a pitch to force in a run and Turner followed with two-run single that made it 5-0.
“It started with Webb’s big hit, and Michael got the big hit that kind of finished it off,” Van Horn said. “ I know there was another one in there, maybe a hit by pitch with Wallace, maybe on a full count.
“I’m thinking that he maybe threw 40 pitches in that inning. I don’t know the exact total, but I haven’t seen that much.”
Noland appreciated the support from his teammates like Wallace and Turner, who combined for five hits and six RBIs.
“Everybody’s excited to be here,” Noland said. “We have another opportunity to play baseball with this group. Any time you have that, you’ve got to be excited. You could see it today. Once you get an early lead, everybody’s having fun, everybody’s playing loose, and that made a big difference.”
Van Horn, whose team had nine hits, was pleased to see his team score the four tallies without the benefit of a home run in the second.
“You can hit three homers in an inning, but what we did in the second, I’ll take that any time,” Van Horn said. “That was big-time at-bats.”
Grand Canyon head coach Andy Stankiewicz thought his young hurler, who had his shortest start of the year, got rattled.
“I think he made a mistake in that first inning, trying to throw a fast ball away and just to try to nibble off the plate,” Stankiewicz said. “Sometimes his arm slot is kind of a three-quarter slot and sometimes it comes back in and the young man (Wallace) put a pretty good swing on it.
“I think that possibly could have rattled him little bit. But again, that is typically not him. We felt like he was the guy we needed here today…That pitch kind of jumped up real quick today. I felt like at that point, we are not in a good spot here and we went to Blake (Reilly).”
Avitia, who had fanned 107 batters in 82 2/3 inning coming into Friday, lasted just 1 2/3 innings against Arkansas while allowing five runs, four hits, fanning four, walking three and hitting a pair.
“But, hey, man, he has had a great year and hopefully he is not done,” Stankiewicz said. “That young man has a lot of good baseball in front of him. We all know that so we still believe in him. I don’t second guess our decision to use him on opening day.”
Neither does Van Horn on his choice of Noland, who allowed one run in seven innings fanned four and walked three.
“Really, it started on the mound with Connor today,” Van Horn said. “Lot of strikes, really mixing well. Grand Canyon has a really good lineup, especially the top five or six guys. Those batting averages are legit, and they’ll fight you. They’re hard to strike out.
“They swing early, and if they get behind they just protect and make it hard on you. Connor did a good job of not letting them frustrate him. But I think he would tell you, that long second inning that we had was big for our team’s confidence.
“And obviously if you’re pitching with a four or five-run lead, it frees you up a lot.”
Stankiewicz was not surprised that Noland, who had lost his last four decisions, responded in grand style on Friday.
“We tried to hold the fort down a little bit and try to get it going, but we had a hard time against their starter,” Stankiewicz said. “He did a really good job of mixing up his pitches, moving his fast ball around then throwing his off-speed stuff down in the zone. We kind of found ourselves chasing a little bit and that put us in a tough spot.”
Wallace homered again in the fourth and Turner added another RBI single in the sixth to cap the scoring.
Stankiewicz played seven years in Major League Baseball with the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Montreal Expos and Arizona Diamondbacks.
He thought Noland showed his toughness in his final inning of work when he took two batted shots off his body.
“Well, he’s an older guy,” Stankiewicz said. “He’s been through it, obviously. He’s got some toughness. That takes some fortitude. That takes some mental toughness to get hit like that, and the play he made, geez, he had to go as close to the line you can get, made a throw on the run.
“It was pretty impressive — you’ve taken a ball off your body, to recover like that and still make a play. Obviously he’s a tough young man. He’s been their guy and you could see why today.”
Photo by John D. James