After three games against No. 7 Oklahoma State, in which the Cowboys averaged nearly 10 runs per game, Arkansas senior right-handed pitcher Connor Noland set out Saturday morning to change the narrative. He threw into the seventh inning, keeping the No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels off the board and earning his second straight weekend-opening win, as the Razorbacks prevailed 4-1.
With the win, the Hogs took a commanding lead in the best-of-three Chapel Hill Super Regional. Since the NCAA Tournament adopted its current format in 1999, the Game 1 winner has won the super regional 80% of the time.
Noland’s day did not begin as smoothly as it ended, as he dealt with a bases-loaded jam in the first inning. He took a comebacker off his leg, picked it up and fired to first to record the third out and end the Tar Heel scoring threat.
Noland and Carlson exchanged three more scoreless frames before freshman first baseman Peyton Stovall put the Hogs on top with his fifth homer of the season.
“(Tar Heel starter Max Carlson) was challenging me the first at-bat with some fastballs, and he has a really good fastball,” Stovall said in the postgame press conference. “It kind of came in, and it almost looks like it’s kind of rising. He challenged me, and I knew my second at-bat, he was going to go right back to it, and I just wanted to put a good swing on it and make solid contact. That’s what I did.”
Junior left fielder Zack Gregory kept the momentum alive with a seven-pitch walk, and he moved into scoring position on graduate senior center fielder Braydon Webb’s single. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch, and both scored — Gregory on senior designated hitter Brady Slavens’ RBI single, and Webb on sophomore third baseman Cayden Wallace’s sacrifice fly.
The three-spot for the Hogs came on the heels of Noland’s first perfect inning in the fourth, and he doubled down with another in the fifth. He surrendered a leadoff single in the sixth, but the runner went nowhere, and Arkansas took its three-run cushion into the late innings.
Slavens delivered his second RBI knock of the contest in the seventh to push the lead to 4-0. Gregory and Webb both walked in front of him, and he sent the first pitch from left-handed reliever Caden O’Brien right back up the middle to score the former.
Noland recorded two quick outs in the bottom of the seventh, but North Carolina second baseman Colby Wilkerson’s soft single prompted Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn to turn to the bullpen with the top of the order set to bat for the fourth time.
In 6 ⅔ innings, Noland allowed six hits, and struck out six batters compared to his one walk. He did not allow a runner to advance past first base after the first inning.
“Just making better pitches,” Noland said of the key to settling down. “I just think they were attacking the fastball in the first inning, and I started mixing the slider a little bit more in between the two offspeed pitches.”
Senior left-hander Evan Taylor was the first Razorback out of the bullpen, and he eliminated the two-out threat with a one-pitch out. He did allow a home run to North Carolina center fielder Vance Honeycutt in the eighth, but it was a solo shot, and it was the only run the Tar Heels could manage.
Following his gutsy six-out save in the regional final against Oklahoma State on Monday, freshman lefty Hagen Smith got the call for the ninth inning. North Carolina left fielder Mikey Madej led off with an infield single, but a strikeout and a pair of flyouts earned Smith his second consecutive save and sealed the 4-1 win for Arkansas.
“I think he was throwing the ball 92, 93 miles an hour, he’s got three, four more miles an hour in there if he needs it,” Van Horn said. “But he just went and pitched a little bit, pitched with the lead. I thought he did a great job.”
The Razorbacks and Tar Heels are set to square off again at noon Sunday. With a win, the Hogs would return to Omaha, Nebraska, the home of the College World Series, for the first time since 2019. The game will be broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN2.
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