FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Isaiah Campbell looked hard at the financial package he was offered last spring as a mid-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels. The immediate impulse was to sign and begin his professional baseball career.
Instead, Campbell chose to return to Arkansas for his junior season. It was a risky business decision, but for Campbell there was unfinished business.
It has worked out well for the 6-foot-4 right-hander, who has worked hard to become the ace on the Razorbacks' staff this season. Pitching coach Matt Hobbs said Campbell's unshakable belief in himself is what helped him become a consistent top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
"He just has an unbelievable amount of will and belief that he knew that there was more for him at Arkansas," said Hobbs. "And he knew there was more for him professionally to put himself in a better situation."
Belief is one thing, but delivering on the field is another. In 16 starts this season, Campbell is 11-1 with a 2.27 earned-run average and 108 strikeouts over 103 innings with just 19 walks. He held opponents to a .207 batting average. In the brutal Southeastern Conference, Campbell was 7-1 with a 2.30 ERA and against TCU in the regional last weekend he allowed only one run over eight innings with eight strikeouts.
After the 24th-round selection by the Angels a year ago, he was drafted last week by the Seattle Mariners at No. 76 overall in competitive balance round B. Campbell also was named to the Collegiate Baseball Magazine All-America team after not being selected to the All-SEC team.
"Last weekend could not have gone any better for me," Campbell said. "We won a regional then I got to hear my name called on the first day of the draft and I got to celebrate that with my family. I got to live my childhood dream."
Campbell will take the ball Saturday as the Razorbacks (44-17) host Mississippi (40-25) in the opener of their super regional. The Rebels have won three of five games against the Razorbacks this season, but Campbell owns one of those wins, going seven innings and allowing just four hits in a 5-3 win.
It will likely be the last time he takes the hill at home.
"There will be a lot of emotion for me, knowing it's my last game here in front of these fans," Campbell said. "I'm just going to try and stay in the moment and not let the scene get too big."
Coach Dave Van Horn echoed Hobbs' assessment that the biggest difference for Campbell this season was his mental approach, but a slight tweak to his arm slot also paid dividends in better control and allowed him to better shape his breaking pitches.
"He just believed in himself, he bet on himself," Van Horn said. "He came back and bettered himself in the draft, he became our ace and good leader."
Campbell's success story will have a lasting impact on the Arkansas program, Van Horn said.
"I will be able to use his story down the road. Kids in our program see what he's done, and kids we are recruiting see what he's done," Van Horn said. "We're happy for Isaiah and for his parents because that was a big decision to turn down that money and come back. But he believed in himself and he wanted to be here. Not only has he gotten better, but he was drafted higher and got his degree. He's a special kid and there are not a lot of those out there."
Campbell, who comes from a military family, was born in Portugal and also lived in Germany and Turkey before the family settled in Olathe, Kansas. He said moving around with his family was beneficial by allowing him to experience different cultures.
A year ago, Campbell was more untapped potential than refined ace. Van Horn handed him the ball in the College World Series against Florida with the Razorbacks needing a win to advance to the championship series. That game was a huge turning point, Campbell said.
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Over 5.1 innings, he allowed just two hits and struck out eight in a 5-2 win that sent the Razorbacks to the championship round against Oregon State. Shortly after that is when he made the decision to return to Arkansas. He also skipped playing in a collegiate summer league to spend time with his strength coach.
"I took that outing and just kept going with it in the summer and fall and kept getting better," he said. "I knew after the College World Series that I could be the ace and I just had to work hard and that's what I did."