OMAHA, Neb. – Here in the age of dragging innings and jumbo-sized pitch counts, this was a most unusual baseball sight.
Pffft . . .
Pffft . . .
Pffft . . .
Those were Stanford’s at-bats Saturday in the Men's College World Series against Arkansas pitcher Connor Noland. Quick, with not a lot of noise. It wasn’t just that the Razorbacks steamrolled the Cardinal 17-2, though that was impressive enough; it was the most lopsided victory in Omaha in 34 years and tied for the fourth largest margin ever. But just as startling was what Noland did to a Stanford lineup that came in averaging nine runs a game in the postseason with 22 homers, and had won 22 of its last 24.
When he left in the eighth inning with two outs, he had thrown 79 pitches — 10 of them to Brock Jones in a single at-bat in the sixth. He had missed on only 24 balls — just 11 in the first five innings — and the count had gone to three balls only once. He had given up six hits. An absolute gem by any measure. That was pretty good for a guy who used to play quarterback for the football Razorbacks, and an in-state native son from the 10,000 citizens of Greenwood, Arkansas.
“I’ve dreamed of this since I was a kid,” he said afterward in the hallway of Charles Schwab Field. “I’m from Arkansas and to do it for this team and our state, it means the world to me.”
This was the same pitcher whose earned run average in his last four starts against SEC opponents in May was 9.0. But this isn’t May. Since June and the postseason arrived, he has been the veteran presence any contender needs. Especially Saturday.
“I just feel like he got a little tired,” coach Dave Van Horn said of that slump. “He got second wind. And hopefully, the wind keeps blowing.”
Saturday it was a gale, as the Stanford batters went down like bowling pins.
First inning. The Cardinal actually scored in three pitches. A Jones homer. After a couple more hits, Stanford had a genuine threat, but Noland got out of the inning with a double play. And then . . .
He retired the Cardinal in order on seven pitches in the second inning.
On five pitches in the third.
Seven in the fourth.
Eight in the fifth. Watching Stanford’s innings was like watching a skier race past on a mountain slope. They came, they went. He kept throwing strikes, Stanford kept hitting them, the Arkansas defense kept making the plays. There wasn’t even enough time for the imposing Razorbacks crowd to reel off a couple of good Pig Sooies! When’s the last time you saw a pitcher get 14 outs on 29 pitches?
“I don’t think I’ve ever done that before,” Noland said. “It’s kind of my game. I’m not chasing a lot of strikeouts out there. I’m just trying to get outs. My defense is so good it’s hard not to just let them work."
He said he kept coming back to the dugout, sensing things were moving rather quickly, “but I didn’t really know how many pitches I was at.”
The Cardinal understood it was not many, but continued to hack away.
“Seemed like they were in front of everything we hit,” coach David Esquer said. “It’s tough to rein back your offense when you haven’t been a take team for most of the year. It was strange to see how quickly he was getting us out.”
It took longer in the sixth, mostly because Jones had the 10-pitch at-bat before striking out. The only Stanford batter Noland would strike out all day. He was usually too busy throwing benign groundouts and harmless fly balls.
By the end of the sixth, Noland had 58 pitches — the fewest over six innings of a College World Series game in 23 years. The temperature was heading for 100 degrees on the sunny and sultry day, but Noland hardly had time to get winded. He wasn’t out there long enough to need sunscreen.
“He wants the ball. He’s not going to go out there to blow you away but he knows how to pitch,” Van Horn said. “We like it when teams are hitting it and we’re fielding it.”
Noland has been around a few blocks with the Razorbacks. This is his fourth season. He spent last year coming out of the bullpen, but has been the stalwart starter most of this season. Van Horn said he has seen Noland with better stuff, “but as far as competing, the temperature, the stage we’re on, you add all that up, and probably nothing’s been better.”
The only question was if he would finish. Noland has never thrown a complete game at Arkansas. The Razorbacks haven’t seen one in five years. But it was a steamy day, and there are more tasks ahead, so Van Horn figured 79 pitches were enough.
Esquer had started using the back end of his bullpen before that, with the game long gone and the goal of preserving some of his arms. That was one reason the gap exploded. Arkansas’ scoring the last five innings sounded like a zip code — 5-0-3-2-6. To think, it was actually tied 1-1 in the fifth, something of a pitcher’s duel, until Chris Lanzilli hit a three-run homer on his 24th birthday. This might describe the long day it became for Stanford: Noland had his 79 pitches in nearly eight full innings. It took the Cardinal staff 212 pitches to get through nine.
“You’ve got to flush it right? It’s got to be quick,” Esquer said of the sour day. “It’s unfortunate. That’s not what you want the country to see. We haven’t been that team.”
No, this was unusual. Just like the Arkansas pitcher who was so quick on and off the mound, he could have been double parked.