A blast of cold weather failed to keep diehard baseball fans away from Baum-Walker Stadium as the Razorbacks opened up the 2019 season by scoring 30 runs in a three game sweep of Eastern Illinois. It may have been chilly in the stands but the action on the field was hot in game one with Dave Van Horn looking for some offense beyond guys not named Casey Martin, Heston Kjerstad and Dominic Fletcher.
Senior transfer Trevor Ezell did not dissapoint. Slated for a spot at 2nd base this season Ezell played all three games at 1st while his right shoulder continues to rehab from off season surgery. Three games into the season he’s leading the team in batting with a .500 average. He also has a home run, four runs scored, 5 RBI and a stolen base.
“It was just fun to be playing baseball again in front of a crowd like that and with these guys,” Ezell said. “We were all excited to play so I’m definitely glad I was able to do my part.”
“It was a great day,” Van Horn said of Ezell’s production in Saturday’s double header. “He’s a tough hitter. Knows the strike zone. He works the count. His first hit as a Razorback was a home run after a walk. I like putting him in the middle of the order. He’s a guy you can depend on to make contact.”
The big surprise came from Jordan McFarland who was the designated hitter in games two and three. A good defensive 1st baseman, McFarland hit .299 last season but had been mired in a frustrating battling slump in the preseason. Thankfully he’s off to a .400 start with two runs scored and four RBI.
“He’s been struggling the last couple of weeks in our scrimmages,” Van Horn said of McFarland. “Up and down in batting practice. We put him in there the second game hoping he would would come through with a couple of big hits and he did. I think he drove in three runs and all three were with two outs.”
McFarland said he decided to just relax while trusting his experience and skills as a hitter, telling reporters, “I’m just grateful to be playing baseball most of all. It’s made it a lot easier for me. Just taking a step back and realizing that it’s a long season and I’ve definitely learned from the first two years I’ve been here.”
Martin had been on a home run tear in the scrimmages and while he did not go yard in the series he was productive at the plate batting .429 with six hits, a double, four runs scored and a stolen base. But Kjerstad was hitting around .200 when he came to the plate in the 9th inning of game three with the score tied at 2-2 and the potential winning run at 2nd.
“He stayed more patient,” Van Horn noted. “He only saw two pitches but his at bat before we had a runner at 3rd with two down and he swung at two balls out of the zone. He’s was just pressing and trying to get a hit too bad. And so for him to come up with the biggest at bat of the game and take first pitch down and then they tried throwing something off speed to him and it was about knee high. He didn’t try to hit it out of the park. He just tried to hit a line drive through the middle and that’s exactly what he did.
There will be far bigger games this season but Kjerstad’s teammates surrounded him near 2nd base and showered him with the contents of their water bottles following the walkoff single.
“I just went up there clear with an easy approach,” Kjerstad said afterward. “Trying to hit something hard up the middle.”
Overall Van Horn got the pitching he needed in the series but game one would have been an issue had Arkansas not put up big numbers in a 15-7 win. Isaiah Campbell, the only returner from last season’s weekend rotation, was on cruise control initially, no-hitting the Panthers for the first four innings. But he was touched for five hits and three runs in the 5th, his last inning of the game.
Arkansas had scored eight runs in the bottom of the 4th and the popular opinion in the press box was that Campbell had sat too long in the cold prior to returning to the mound in the 5th. He disputed that notion.
“For me and (pitching) coach (Matt) Hobbs, we both felt that my stuff was just as good in the 5th as it was in the 1st,” Campbell told reporters. “They just kind of changed their plan. They attacked fastballs, first pitch more. They just found some holes but I kept fighting, kept throwing strikes and got out of it.”
Game two starter Connor Noland lived up to the preseason hype he had generated. The freshman quarterback for Arkansas’ football team, with a win under his belt on the gridiron, had earned a spot in the weekend rotation after throwing nine solid innings in preseason scrimmages. Van Horn had touted Noland’s control pointing out that a lot freshmen pitchers exhibit good stuff but often lack the accuracy to earn a starting nod right off the bat.
Noland struck out seven hitters in 4 2/3 innings of work in his debut as a Razorback and while he surrendered a couple of runs, they were both unearned.
“I thought Noland threw the ball well,” Van Horn acknowledged. “The breaking ball was good. The zone was a little tighter on some pitches that we thought were close where he could have gotten the calls. It didn’t faze him. He just kept pitching. His command started picking up in the 2nd and 3rd. The 5th, I thought he started getting a little tired and his pitch count was getting up there.”
Noland said he was happy with his day on the mound but noted that he would have preferred to finish that final inning.
“I think everybody that pitches would say they would want to finish that out but I could tell I was getting tired and I know coach saw that too,” Noland admitted.
Another rookie hurler was impressive out of the bullpen in game three. Patrick Wicklander came on for starter Jacob Kostyshock to begin the 6th. Wicklander stunned the crowd by retiring the side with just 10 pitches. Wicklander would eventually go 2 1/3 while giving up a run on two hits but Van Horn predicted that left-hander from San Jose, California will work as a starter before long.
“Coming off the semster break we thought he might be a weekend starter for us because he threw really well in the fall,” Van Horn explained. “But he kind of got off to a slow start so we thought, we’re not going to start him opening weekend and we might not start him next week but you’ll see him on the mound starting for us. Whether it’s midweek next week just depends on how much we use him against USC this weekend.”
The washout of last Friday’s scheduled season opener will have a big effect on Arkansas’ pitching plans for the USC series. Because all three games will be played at night Van Horn said a normal Friday, Saturday, Sunday series in Los Angeles would have left the team with no way to get back without missing Monday classes. “We can’t to that,” he stressed. “We’re missing too much just getting out there.”
The Thursday-Saturday series will cut two days rest off of Arkansas’ starters and Van Horn said that Campbell for sure will not go until Friday and maybe Saturday. So what about Thursday?
“We’ll name a starter but it might be we just tell guys to go out there and give us two or three (innings) and we’ll go to the next guy.”
The games can be viewed via computer on the Pac 12 Network service for select providers in Arkansas. Fans who can get those games will need to stay up late. Start times are 9 pm Thursday and 8 pm Friday and Saturday.