FAYETTEVILLE — Saving his 10-1 ace, Isaiah Campbell for Saturday’s matchup against second-seeded California or third-seeded TCU, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn elected freshman right-hander Connor Noland of Greenwood, to start the top-seeded Razorbacks’ Fayetteville Regional opener at Baum-Walker Stadium against the fourth-seeded Central Connecticut State University Blue Devils.
Though only 2-4, Noland, 3.71 ERA, has started a game every SEC weekend. Lately, he’s been surpassed only by Campbell.
On a pitch count last Friday to be Fayetteville Regional fresh, Noland threw a two-hitter for five innings against Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament at Hoover, Alabama.
To the bullpen, he bequeathed a 2-1 lead which Arkansas lost, 3-2.
Statistically, the percentages favor Van Horn’s starting pitching strategy of saving Campbell for Saturday’s game against either California, 32-18 of the Pac 12, or TCU, 32-26 of the Big 12, pending their 6 p.m. Friday game.
Saturday’s 1 p.m. loser’s bracket and 6 p.m. winner’s bracket games feed into Sunday’s 1 p.m. loser’s bracket final and 6 p.m. championship game with a Monday winner-take-all championship game if necessary.
SEC West co-champion Arkansas, 41-17, not only is the Fayetteville Regional top seed but the No. 5 national seed among the 16 four-team double-elimination regionals starting Friday coast to coast.
In contrast, CCSU is 30-21 from the less heralded Northeast Conference.
But, the Arkansas coach knows a calculated risk saving Campbell beyond Friday’s 1 p.m. game.
How the coach Charlie Hickey’s Blue Devils won their Northeast Conference Baseball Tournament should alert the Razorbacks they likely face a team unfazed by long odds.
The Blue Devils displayed they can best the clearly better.
During the Northeast Conference regular season those same Bryant Bulldogs that upset Van Horn’s Razorbacks in the 2011 opener of the Manhattan (Kansas) Regional finished first to CCSU’s second, burying the Blue Devils along the way.
At CCSU’s field in New Britton, Connecticut, Bryant blasted the Blue Devils,
16-4, 15-4 and 7-2.
Bryant prevailed, 3-1 in their first winner’s bracket meeting at the Northeast Conference Tournament in Norwich, Connecticut.
Undaunted fighting out of the loser’s bracket, the Blue Devils bedeviled their tormentor, 3-1 and 3-2, to claim the Northeast Conference’s lone NCAA Tournament berth and leave the Bulldogs in the doghouse.
Typifying the Blue Devils’ grit, senior right-handed pitcher Tom Curtin, just two days after throwing a complete game shutout in a 5-0 NEC Tournament victory over Wagner, came back to pitch the first 5.2 innings in the 3-2 championship victory over Bryant.
It netted Curtin a well deserved NEC Tournament MVP, said CCSU first baseman/designated hitter TT Bowen, a gritty character himself overcoming two sidelining knee injuries this season to return to the lineup and lead the Blue Devils hitters batting .386.
“It’s crazy,” Bowens told the Hartford Courant. “I didn’t even expect to play this year, and now we’re NEC tournament champions again. It’s a feeling you can’t explain. Our defense and pitching won for us. Coming out of the losing bracket is the hardest thing, to have enough pitching. Tom’s a bulldog. He deserved every bit of that most valuable player.”
Curtin, 5-3, 3.85 ERA, and fellow right-handers Mike Appel 6-0, 2.31, and Patrick Mitchell 6-3, 4.58, are the Blue Devils best starting pitchers.
For their sake Friday, it especially behooves the Razorbacks not trailing late. Jared Gallagher, CCSU’s lefty closer, is 3-0 with nine saves and a 1.72 ERA.