Perhaps an even taller order than replacing those who moved on from last season’s lineup is replacing two weekend starters who pitched at the caliber of Blaine Knight and Kacey Murphy. However, it would have been a lot harder had projected staff ace Isaiah Campbell not decided to come back for his redshirt-junior season. Campbell was up and down last season, showing brilliance in between starts where he really struggled. Hopefully he can put together a consistent season this year to become the Friday night starter that everyone thought he could be since he stepped on campus three years ago.
Even with a hard throwing, strikeout pitcher like Campbell, Arkansas still needs to find two other pitchers to fill in weekend roles early this season. Dave Van Horn announced this week that freshman Connor Noland will be starting one of the other two games this weekend, but still is not certain if it will be the second or third game. Noland, who rotated in at quarterback for the Hogs’ football team last season, has impressed with his arm strength and ability to locate his pitches since joining the baseball team. He will be on a 70 pitch count for the opening weekend, but it seems as if he is poised to take over one of the main starting roles this season.
The third weekend starter is still anyone’s guess, perhaps even including Van Horn. There are a number of guys who may get the opportunity to take hold of this spot over the first few weeks. Based on scrimmage results, returners Cody Scroggins, Jacob Kostyshock, Kole Ramage, and freshman Patrick Wicklander could all receive starts early to see who steps up and feels comfortable in that role. The third spot in the rotation could also end up being a kitchen sink situation this season, having several people available to pitch throughout the games. Scroggins and Ramage both showed the ability to stretch appearances several innings last year, especially late. Kostyshock really impressed during the offseason in the league he played in last summer, and showed up to campus having gained weight to his thin frame. Wicklander was highly touted out of San Jose, CA and I would like to see him succeed early and put a left-handed arm in the weekend rotation.
While starting pitching is very important, having a strong bullpen is perhaps even more crucial, and the Hogs return several guys that can fill in where long relievers Jake Reindl and Barrett Loseke left off last season. Van Horn announced that the pitching staff already took one hit in losing Caleb Boulden for the season to arm surgery, but there is reason to be optimistic with the experience and new talent on this young pitching staff.
Any of the names mentioned above who are not starting will obviously contribute to the bullpen. Ramage returns the most innings with 36, in which he struck out a whopping 50 batters. Scroggins threw 15.2 innings over 16 appearances in his first full season as a pitcher. He came to campus as an infielder before suffering a season ending injury early in his second season, and now he is finally starting a season on the mound with a normal offseason schedule.
Kevin Kopps is back and 100% healthy after missing all of last season recovering from arm surgery. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Kopps posted a 3.31 over 49 innings. If he can come back as good or better than two seasons ago, he could be a huge boost to the bullpen or perhaps fill in as a starter. Like Kostyshock, Zebulon Vermillion was also highly impressive while pitching for his summer league team, and he could be a major contributor to the bullpen after seeing limited time last year. Another returning arm who will contribute and who redshirted during his sophomore season last year is Marshall Denton. Two other freshmen to keep an eye on are left-handers Caden Monke and Liam Henry.
After setting the team record for saves last season, Matt Cronin returns to his closing role on the back end of the bullpen. Last season he posted a 3.54 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 48.1 innings. His success and dominant repertoire of pitches have placed him on several preseason accolade lists including First Team All SEC, First Team All-American (Baseball America), and the Golden Spikes Award watch list.
Based on last season, fall reports, and hearing from Van Horn, here is how I expect the pitching duties to be split up:
Weekend Starting Rotation:
1. Isaiah Campbell
2. Connor Noland
3. Patrick Wicklander or Kole Ramage
Kole Ramage or Patrick Wicklander