TURNER SPARKS RUN
WELL-ROUNDED HOGS’ SEASON ENDS IN OMAHA
BY MATT JONES
Just before the NCAA Tournament, Arkansas catcher Michael Turner was referred to as a rental player by a Northwest Arkansas sports talk radio show host as part of a derogatory rant meant to criticize his play. After a memorable postseason in which Turner was named the best player at his position, the Razorbacks might wish he was available to lease another year. Just before the NCAA Tournament, Arkansas catcher Michael Turner was referred to as a rental player by a Northwest Arkansas sports talk radio show host as part of a derogatory rant meant to criticize his play. After a memorable postseason in which Turner was named the best player at his position, the Razorbacks might wish he was available to lease another year. Many contributed, but Turner was the constant force during Arkansas’ march to and through the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. The Razorbacks lost to national champion Ole Miss 2-0 to finish one victory shy of playing for a national championship. The USA Today Baseball Coaches Poll ranked Arkansas third to end the season. Turner never spoke publicly about the radio segment or whether it motivated him, but he played his best baseball in the weeks that followed. In 11 postseason games he batted .429 with an OPS of 1.094, drove in 16 runs and scored 7 runs. Turner was the most valuable player of the Stillwater Regional, where the Razorbacks defeated No. 7 national seed Oklahoma State twice in three games. Turner made every play Arkansas needed him to make over four days in Stillwater, including two-run double with two outs in the ninth inning to give the Razorbacks some breathing room and a 7-3 lead in the regional championship game. It was one of several key hits he delivered at O’Brate Stadium. He had two run-scoring singles that accounted for 3 RBI during a 7-1 victory against Grand Canyon; had a two-run single, a solo home run and bases-loaded walk to aid a rally in the Razorbacks’ 20-12 win over Oklahoma State in the pivotal winners bracket game; and hit a two-run home run to briefly give Arkansas the lead in the eighth inning of a 14-10 loss in 10 innings to the Cowboys. “I’ve never had this much fun playing baseball,” Turner said following the regional. The stats don’t show how well he caught over the final few weeks. During the Stillwater Regional that set the NCAA record for home runs and runs scored at a postseason regional site, Turner caught a pair of well-pitched games. At the Chapel Hill Super Regional, he was key to an Arkansas pitching effort that held North Carolina — one of college baseball’s best lineups — to four runs in two games. And at the College World Series, the Razorbacks shut down high-scoring lineups from Stanford and Auburn, and did so twice in three games against Ole Miss. The Rebels’ 13-run outburst on June 20 was the outlier during an Omaha stay that saw the Razorbacks allow seven runs in four other games. “It’s a tough position back there in the heat, catching, throwing and sweating and grinding and calling pitches, it can be a little stressful,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said during the postseason run. “And then trying to hit, I mean that takes a tough individual to do what he does. “I’ve always said that catching is the best position on the field. You’re the only one facing the whole field and you’re the only one involved in every play. You’ve got to have special people back there if you’re going to have a good team.” Turner made one of Arkansas’ several notable defensive plays of the tournament when he picked off Caeden Trenkle for the second out of the fourth inning in the regional championship against Oklahoma State. During a huddle as the Razorbacks changed pitchers, Turner told Van Horn and first baseman Peyton Stovall that Trenkle was getting a big lead. “I think we can pick them off,” Turner said, according to Van Horn. “I mean, that was all Michael Turner,” Van Horn said. “He saw the field…and he saw that we had a chance to do it. That was a huge play in the game. That was a momentum killer right there. That’s what you want behind the plate.” Without Turner, the Razorbacks might have never made it past Stillwater and gone on one of the great postseason runs in program history. Arkansas advanced to the national semifinals for the sixth time in 43 years. The Razorbacks exhibited a well-rounded team with great defense, timely hitting and many innings of shutdown pitching. Arkansas finished with an 8-3 postseason record and outscored its opponents by a combined 88-54. The Razorbacks were the only team to beat four national seeds during this year’s postseason — Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Stanford and Auburn. Arkansas’ No. 1 starting pitcher, Connor Noland, reestablished himself as an ace. Noland was dominant in NCAA postseason starts against Grand Canyon, North Carolina, Stanford and Ole Miss as he allowed 5 runs in 29 1/3 innings for an ERA of 1.53, and allowed 25 hits and 5 walks for a WHIP of 1.02. In what was likely to be his final time in a Razorback uniform, Noland delivered one of the best starts of his career, though it wasn’t enough to save Arkansas’ season. Pitching on short rest, the redshirt junior right-hander from Greenwood allowed 2 runs on 7 hits and did not walk a batter during his 8-inning, 84-pitch start. He threw 58 pitches (69%) for strikes. Asked how Noland’s 2022 campaign compared to past aces like Isaiah Campbell, Patrick Wicklander and Blaine Knight, Van Horn said it was “right there.” He finished the season 8-6 with a 3.65 ERA in 116 innings. “He got eight wins and, yeah, he had a few losses in there, but in the losses it was a lot of times we just didn’t score,” Van Horn said. “He ate up a lot of innings for us and he helped us win (regular-season games) on Saturday and Sunday because of what he did on Fridays.” The Razorbacks also found a solid starter in Will McEntire, who threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings in the clinching game of the super regional, and allowed 1 run and struck out 9 during a 7-inning start of an elimination game against Auburn at the College World Series. In Omaha, the Razorbacks had some loud offensive performances at a ballpark not known for being hitter-friendly. Arkansas tacked on several runs late against back-line Stanford pitching during a 17-2 victory over the Cardinal that included 21 hits, the most by the Razorbacks since 2001. The 17 runs were the most for any team during a College World Series game since 2008 and the 15-run margin was the largest at the College World Series since 1988. Despite offensive struggles over the final two games against Ole Miss, the Razorbacks raised their season batting average by 7 points to .276 and their OPS by 11 points to .861 during the postseason, a time when those stats often fall due to improved opposing pitching. During an 11-1 victory over Auburn, Arkansas first baseman Peyton Stovall became the first player to record five hits during a College World Series game played at Schwab Field, which opened in 2011. Stovall was an offensive star throughout the postseason as he batted .429 and drove in 13 runs. “He’s starting to hit for power, hit for average, taking his walks, and we’ve really been able to see the future the last month,” Van Horn said following the Auburn game. “It’s been fun.” It was a team built to make the College World Series because of its depth and its motivation. The Razorbacks returned several position starters from the 2021 team that was the No. 1 national seed, but lost in a home super regional. The magnitude of that outcome was evident as Arkansas’ players dogpiled on the field of North Carolina’s Boshamer Stadium after a walk-off 4-3 win to clinch a trip to Omaha. Before Brady Slavens’ game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning, shortstop Jalen Battles told him, “This is what we came back for, so go do it.” “This is special because of the way it went down last year, honestly,” Van Horn said following the Super Regional. “It was tough last year at this time. This is awesome.” Making it to the College World Series was also made more special because of the struggles this year’s team had down the stretch. Arkansas was ranked in the top five nationally for most of the season, but was 4-8 over its final 12 games before the NCAA Tournament. That stretch cost the Razorbacks a chance to host a regional at home. “I don’t feel like we overachieved,” Van Horn said when the season ended. “I feel like we had a good team, but I think we ended up where we should have ended up, which is in Omaha.” The Razorbacks will look much different in 2023. All but one position starter, Stovall, have either exhausted their eligibility, are expected to go pro or will transfer. By the end of June, Arkansas had already added commitments from 10 junior college players and a transferring outfielder from Creighton, Jared Wegner. There might be some familiarity in the pitching staff with the return of McEntire, Freshman All-Americans Hagen Smith and Brady Tygart, and some others. Left-hander Zack Morris — the hero of the Razorbacks’ final victory of the year when he stranded the bases loaded against Ole Miss in the ninth inning — is an intriguing name to watch this summer. He is ranked the No. 422 prospect for this year’s MLB Draft by Baseball America, but could return with bargaining leverage. The schedule never gets any easier for Arkansas, which is scheduled to begin 2023 with games against Oklahoma State, Texas and TCU at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas. The Razorbacks’ SEC schedule will include home series against Tennessee, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Alabama, and road series at Ole Miss, LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Georgia.