At Monday’s first Swatter’s Club luncheon of the season Dave Van Horn announced that rookie right-hander Connor Noland will start on the mound either Saturday or Sunday against Eastern Illinois.
“Connor doesn’t even know that yet,” Van Horn quipped as he addressed reporters afterward. “So I’ll go tell him that right now.”
So how did the freshman from Greenwood, Arkansas, who is in school on a football scholarship, move up so fast in the preseason? “Control,” Van Horn said. “We knew he had good stuff but he commands the baseball and a lot of times young guys don’t. Guys with good arms they don’t throw enough strikes yet. Since his high school career ended it’s been about football and to pick up the little white ball and be able to throw it where you want it, to me, that’s very impressive.”
But the veteran head coach also likes more than just Noland’s pitching. “It’s all the little things,” Van Horn continued. “Like holding runners. He picked a runner off 1st the other day. Fielding his position he’s outstanding so far. He’s fairly quick to the plate.”
Junior right-hander Isaiah Campbell will get the nod in Friday’s season opener. Both he and Noland will be on a pitch count that should carry them through four or five innings if all goes well. The other rotation spot is still open and apparently Van Horn has a lot of options.
“You’ve got (Jacob) Kostyshock. You’ve got (Patrick) Wicklander. Cody Scoggins. (Kole) Ramage,” Van Horn said as he ticked off a list of potential starters for the open spot. “They’ve all been throwing really well. What you see this weekend may be different next weekend against USC. I just want to make sure that we have a deep, strong bullpen. That’s a big concern of mine. We have the guys. It’s just a matter if we want to take one of those bullpen guys out and start him.”
The other breaking news of the day involved senior transfer Trevor Ezell who will apparently only see limited duty at 2nd base over the weekend. Ezell swings a hot bat but has been throwing sidearmed in practice while his shoulder continues to rehab from off-season surgery.
“I’m really big on being strong up the middle,” Van Horn said of his infield plans for the weekend. “I think we’re going to move (Jack) Kenley (from 3rd) to 2nd. Probably put Jacob Nesbitt at 3rd. Ezell will play some 2nd. Probably play some 1st. Maybe DH. At least to start the season, get the guys who’ve been there. I just want to make sure we can make plays up the middle and make relay throws and turn double plays.”
Dominic Fletcher, maybe the best defensive centerfielder in the SEC, was missing from the outfield in Friday’s scrimmage although he did bat. Van Horn erased any concerns that the junior left-handed hitter might miss the opening weekend when he told reporters, “He tweeked his hamstring a little bit. He’s got a little bit of a sore arm. We kidded him, ‘You’re just waiting for the games to start. Are you really hurt?’ But really he could have scrimmaged. We were just trying to make sure he’s okay.”
Van Horn told fans at the Swatter’s Club luncheon that he will probably space out some of the hitters in the first half of the team’s batting order. He also admitted that the bottom part of the lineup has not been producing so far.
“I think what we might do is go ahead and put Casey (Martin) at the top of the order the first game,” Van Horn expained, “and then obviously Heston’s (Kjerstad) behind him and then break it up with Ezell in the three hole. Then come with Fletcher behind him and then maybe (Matt) Goodheart hitting behind him because he can protect Fletcher a little bit with a lefty-handed bat.”
“From there on,” Van Horn continued, “we’ve got to have some guys, five, six and seven, they need to produce. It’s been really up and down. Our pitchers are SEC guys and they’ve gotten us out pretty good. We’ve had nine scrimmages, or that’s what we’re gonna finish with before we open up, and the pitchers have won most of those battles.”
One of those players that needs to produce is junior 1st baseman Jordan McFarland. Long term Arkansas needs him because of his defensive skills but, “He’s not hitting,” Van Horn noted. “He’s playing really good defense and working extremely hard. But he’s really struggling at the plate. Maybe he’s putting too much pressure on himself. I think he’s gonna snap out of it. He’s had a good attitude. We told him, ‘We’re gonna need you.’ The first weekend or three weeks down the road we need him to get it going.”
What does Van Horn know about Eastern Illinois?
“They have an older team. They lost a lot of players off of last year’s team but they replaced them with junior college transfers. I’d say three quarters of their roster, or more, are juniors and seniors. They’ve got two of their better pitchers back and two of their top four hitters. It’s one of those things, you just kind of watch pregame batting practice. Try to make a few notes and take what we can get from scouting reports. Sometimes, after watching them hit, it all changes. But the key for us is just to play our game. We need to play well.”
Friday’s game starts at 3 pm. First pitch Saturday is at 2 pm. Sunday’s final game of the series begins at 1 pm. Fans coming to Baum-Walker Stadium need to be prepared for cold conditions with high temperatures expected in the low to mid 40’s.