Noland Outdone by DeLucia as Arkansas is Eliminated at CWS

Image credit: Arkansas SS Jalen Battles (Photo courtesy of Arkansas)

OMAHA — It’s likely little consolation to an Arkansas team that’s headed home from the College World Series after a 2-0 loss to Mississippi Thursday afternoon, but it went out with its best guy on the mound doing things that you want to see from your best guy in a game with stakes like this one. 

Connor Noland, the aforementioned best guy, was excellent. He gave the Razorbacks eight innings, giving up seven hits and two runs with no walks and seven strikeouts. 

Furthermore, he really limited Ole Miss rallies. Just twice did the Rebels get at least two runners on base in a single inning and those happened to be the two times they pushed runs across. 

In the fourth, after Justin Bench led off with a single, Noland got the next two batters out as he threatened to wiggle out of the jam, but he fell just short of doing so as Kevin Graham swung on a hanging breaking ball and grounded it hard just past a diving Peyton Stovall at first base, scoring Bench. 

And in the seventh, Tim Elko and Graham singled to begin the inning, with Elko scoring two batters later on a Calvin Harris single between first and second base. 

Otherwise, with the help of double plays and other flashes of sparkling defense from an Arkansas infield that can really pick it, Noland faced the minimum in the six other innings in which he pitched. 

“It was unbelievable,” third baseman Cayden Wallace said of Noland’s outing. “He let up two runs, and they were honestly just very unfortunate runs, just flipped through the infield. He pitched his heart out for us just like he did all year. We knew he was on short rest. We knew he was going to give it everything he’s got, just like he does every outing.”

No one can say this outing was out of nowhere for Noland, because this is who he has been in his starts this postseason. 

Noland has thrown 29.1 combined innings in starts against Grand Canyon, North Carolina, Stanford and Ole MIss and has given up all of five runs, which is good for a 1.53 ERA. 

At the same time, it’s quite the comeback story, because this isn’t who Noland was during the latter portion of SEC play. After giving up three or fewer runs in each of his first 10 starts, he surrendered four or more in four of the following five starts through the SEC Tournament. 

“I think Connor got a little tired,” Van Horn said. “He just hit the wall there about three-quarters of the way through the season and had a couple, three bad weekends. Not really bad, he just didn’t throw as good as he normally does. He got hit around a little bit, and he wasn’t commanding his fastball.”

Ultimately, this time, as good as Noland was, it just wasn’t enough for the Razorbacks. Ole Miss righthander Dylan Delucia one-upped Noland by throwing a four-hit shutout. 

And so, Arkansas is headed home, but not before it really turned things around late in the season. Recall that for much of the season the Razorbacks were a top-10 team, and although it wasn’t always pretty, they continued to find ways to win games. 

That remained true right up until it lost its last two SEC regular-season series and then went 0-2 in the SEC Tournament, which took away any chance of hosting a regional at Baum-Walker Stadium. Looking back, that was a turning point. 

“We had a team meeting down at the SEC Tournament, kind of came together and decided that we had to turn things around right then,” Noland said. “You saw we answered that calling. This team has so many tough players, tough individuals and tough coaches. I think you saw that throughout the postseason.”

After the loss, Van Horn described this season as ending right where it was supposed to end—in Omaha. While he was referring to this team specifically being an Omaha-caliber team, he also could be speaking for the general expectation in the program, because of late, the trip here has become old hat. 

Arkansas has reached the College World Series five times in the last 10 full seasons, and although there has been some heartbreak along the way—the Razorbacks were one out away from winning the national championship in 2018 and were upset by North Carolina State as the No. 1 overall seed in 2021—Van Horn still speaks like a coach who understands the massive achievement that is simply getting to this stage. 

“I told (the team) after the game how proud I was of them,” Van Horn said. “I had a little trouble talking, but I told them that I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry when you finish your season in Omaha.”

It will be an offseason of rebuilding ahead for Arkansas, which is really par for the course for a program that is as consistently talented as this one. Wallace, second baseman Robert Moore, shortstop Jalen Battles and DH Brady Slavens are all likely to be drafted and signed. Graduate transfers in outfielder Chris Lanzilli and catcher Michael Turner are out of eligibility. Each of those players will leave a pretty sizable hole. 

Noland has another year of eligibility that he can use, but he also will have opportunities to move on and begin his pro career. Veteran relievers Zebulon Vermillion and Kole Ramage are also out of eligibility. But the pitching staff should otherwise be intriguing next season, led by Hagen Smith and Brady Tygart, who both showed flashes of greatness as freshmen. 

More than anything else, you just trust that Arkansas will reload. Whether through another elite recruiting class, through the transfer portal or through good, old-fashioned player development for the players currently on the roster, a new group of impact players will soon emerge in Fayetteville, where the expectation is Omaha. 

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