It wasn’t the best of days in terms of weather for Connor Noland to make his pitching debut in front of his new Arkansas teammates. The thermometer was sitting at around 45 degrees Saturday afternoon when the freshman from Greenwood began limbering up in the bullpen during the 2nd inning of a preseason scrimmage at Baum Stadium. After an initial round of pitches Noland removed a warmup jacket and continued throw with his bare arms exposed in a wind chill that was closer to the upper 30’s.
A couple of hours earlier Noland had told the Pig Trail Nation’s Alyssa Orange that he felt he was about 85% back in the transition from throwing a football to throwing a baseball. “It’s been good but I need to pitch against live hitters which obviously I haven’t done yet,” Noland stressed. “Today I’ll get to face live batters and that’s a big part of my transition in being ready for the first game.”
Arkansas’ new pitching coach said Noland went through four bullpen sessions before being cleared to throw in the team’s first scrimmage. “He’s been really, really good,” Matt Hobbs raved. “Not just in terms of his stuff, which he’s been excellent at, but overwhelmingly terms of execution. He’s able to make pitches on three different planes. He can spin the baseball. Not afraid to throw inside and it’s just been really good to see him go out and have a chance to pitch.”
As the third inning of Saturday’s scrimmage ended the gate to the left field bullpen swung open and Noland trotted out to a smattering of applause from the 50 or so fans who braved the cold to watch. He didn’t dissappoint those fans or his coaches.
Noland began by facing the minimum of three batters including sophomore Heston Kjerstad, one of the better young hitters in college baseball. He got Kjerstad on a ground ball to second and struck out the next two batters swinging; senior catcher Zack Plunkett and freshman Elijah Trest.
Noland was greeted in the dugout by veteran pitcher Isaiah Campbell who had worked the first three innings of the scrimmage. In the locker room beforehand Campbell had suggested that whatever difficulties Noland will face as a rookie missing fall baseball would be mitigated by the fact that he had already performed under pressure on the gridiron, beating Tulsa in his only start of the season.
“He’s not been with us a lot but mentally he’s going to be there,” Campbell predicted, “because he’s going out there (in football) and leading an offense in front of 70,000 fans. There’s a mental factor to that. Physically, he’s got some of the best stuff on the team, a really heavy fastball and really good off speed with that. He’s going to play really well in the SEC.”
In the 5th Noland quickly struck out redshirt freshman infielder Jacob Nesbit before freshman Zack Gregory reached 1st on an error by shortstop Casey Martin. A double to left brought Gregory around for an unearned run. But Noland bounced back by striking out freshman outfielder Christian Franklin. He then closed out the inning by getting sophomore Matt Goodheart to ground out to first, preventing any further damage.
Noland got Kjerstad for a second time to record out number one in the 6th when Kjerstad flied out to right center on an easy catch by Dominic Fletcher. Plunkett then hit a double to left off Jack Kenley’s glove at 3rd. But Trest bounced out to 1st and Plunkett failed to score from 3rd when Noland fielded a hopper to the left of the mound and beat Nesbit by a step on a turnaround throw to 1st.
Leaving the scrimmage, former Arkansas head coach Norm DeBriyn noted that Noland was throwing in the low 90’s on the gun when he came out of the bullpen. By his final inning Noland’s velocity was still in the upper 80’s. Pretty impressive for a freshman who has only been back throwing a baseball since mid December.
How much Noland’s pitching will be affected once he starts back up throwing a football when Chad Morris opens spring football is anybody’s guess but he had met head coach Dave Van Horn’s expectations as a two-sport athlete even before Saturday’s scrimmage.
“It’s interesting,” Van Horn told reporters the previous Thursday, “Coach Hobbs comes in here, a new coach so he’s got a fresh mind, a fresh opinion on everybody and he really likes Connor. He’s very mature. Strong. We think he’s going to be a really big part of our pitching staff.”
So how will Noland split his time between baseball and spring football?
“It will be a floating schedule,” Van Horn explained. “What I mean by that is, we just have to make sure we don’t double up on anything where he’s lifting (weights) with them and lifting with us. Connor has to manage it. He has to make sure he speaks up either to us or football.”
Arkansas will open the season with a three-game home series against Eastern Illinois starting Friday February 15th. That’s the same school the Arkansas football team opened up against back on September 1st of 2018. Noland was on the bench for that game. As it stands right now Razorback fans will see him pitch on opening weekend against the Panthers at Baum Stadium.