Ascendant Campbell Leads Hogs To FinalsCollege World Series
OMAHA — On a February evening in San Diego, after Arkansas righthander Isaiah Campbell had turned in five strong innings in a win over San Diego State, Dave Van Horn was blunt about what Campbell’s potential breakout could mean for his team — and about how Campbell’s injury-shortened 2017 season affected the Razorbacks.
“When he went down, it broke our spirit a little bit, to be honest with you, and we just told our team we’re going to win anyway, and we still won 45 games,” Van Horn said. “We feel like this team’s probably a little better than last year’s team, and one reason is because he’s back.”
Van Horn was right on both counts. This Arkansas team is indeed better than the 2017 edition, and it might very well go down as the best club in program history, particularly if the Hogs can win two more games next week to capture their first-ever national title. Campbell helped put them in that position, turning in 5.1 innings of two-hit ball Friday night to lead Arkansas to a 5-2 win against reigning national champion Florida, propelling Arkansas to the CWS Finals.
Campbell’s path from that night in San Diego to this night in Omaha was not linear; he had some nice outings as a redshirt sophomore this spring, highlighted by eight innings of one-run ball against Kentucky in March, but his season was full of stops and starts. He lasted two or fewer innings four times, and he missed some time in late March/early April due to tightness in his elbow. That surely alarmed some Arkansas fans, since Campbell missed almost the entire 2017 season due to bone spurs in that elbow.
Right before that layoff, Campbell had been rocked in Arkansas’ 17-2 loss at Florida. He walked four batters and allowed four hits including a grand slam in one inning of work.
“I had it in the back of my mind when I woke up this morning. I know I didn’t help the team at all in that start. It’s one of my worst starts of the year,” Campbell said. “I didn’t think about it too much once I got to the field. I was all just ready for the night, just giving our team a chance to win.”
On paper, the pitching matchup seemed to favor Florida, which was throwing national Player of the Year Brady Singer, albeit on four days’ rest. Campbell hadn’t been great in the postseason, failing to record an out against Dallas Baptist, then exiting after four inefficient innings against South Carolina.
But Campbell could not have been any better over the first 4.2 innings Friday. No, really — he had a perfect game going until Austin Langworthy’s two-out single in the fifth. Campbell retired the first 14 batters of the game, seven of them via strikeout. Inconsistent command has been his bugaboo this spring, but on this night his command was impeccable — he located his fastball wherever he wanted to, and it had premium velocity, sitting at 94-96 mph for three innings, then dipping just a tick to 92-94 in the middle innings. That was up from February, when he sat 90-93 and touched 94-95 just a couple of times.
Another key difference from February has been the emergence of Campbell’s cutter, a filthy putaway weapon in the 85-89 range. Early this season, he used a four-pitch mix that included plenty of big 12-6 curveballs at 72-77, a promising changeup, and a slider at 80-84, topping out at 85 mph a few times. But as that pitch developed more power, it morphed into the cutter he uses now.
“The cutter I had tonight, it’s more the slider I’ve been throwing all year,” Campbell said. “I’ve been working with Coach (Wes) Johnson in the bullpen to throw it with a little more conviction, use the hips a little more. And since then it’s turned into more of a cutter.”
Campbell said he actually struggled to find his feel for the cutter in the bullpen before the game, but he found it quickly in the early innings, and he used it to strike out Jonathan India, Wil Dalton, Brady Smith, JJ Schwarz and Nick Horvath — all righthanded hitters.
The strikeout of Horvath in the fifth inning was perhaps the biggest moment of the game. After Langworthy’s two-out single, Campbell’s command finally faltered just a bit as he was forced to work from the stretch for the first time all game. He hit the next batter, then allowed an RBI single and allowed another run to score on a wild pitch (though it probably should have been blocked by catcher Grant Koch). But Campbell kept his composure and struck out Horvath to strand a man at second base, keeping Arkansas’ lead at 4-2. The Gators would not score again, as Campbell got one more out in the sixth and then handed off to Jake Reindl and Matt Cronin, who combined to allow just one hit over 3.2 scoreless frames of relief.
Now Arkansas is really sitting pretty, having waltzed through its CWS bracket 3-0, leaving its pitching set up perfectly for the CWS Finals, which begin Monday. Ace Blaine Knight will be well rested for Game One, and No. 2 starter Kacey Murphy will be ready to go for Game Two. Campbell’s big-time performance allowed the Hogs to set up their rotation exactly who they’d want it — and whichever team they face, Oregon State or Mississippi State, won’t have the same luxury, after playing an if-necessary game Saturday night.
So Campbell picked a great night to elevate his game, with the stakes high and the stage enormous — pitching in the College World Series in front of 25,016 fans, the largest crowd of the week. His ability to maintain his poise on that stage was another product of his development over the course of his season.
“I think with Isaiah, it was more about just lack of experience and maybe not being able to handle a little failure,” Van Horn said. “And he had expectations for himself, we did, the team, and I think it just kind of snowballed on him and he started climbing out, climbing up the hill. He didn’t have the good start in the regional. And I think that he just worked himself up and got a little nervous, and we could kind of see it before the (DBU) game even started.
“…And then the last two outings, you know, counting tonight, just that’s what we thought, that’s what we thought we had. And we kept telling him: ‘We’ve got to have you.’ But he’s come a long way, and from I guess the Florida series to now, I mean, he’s a true SEC starter. Any given day he can shut you down for a while.”
And Campbell didn’t shut down just anybody. He shut down the reigning CWS champions, an experienced and explosive offensive team coming off a nine-run performance Thursday against Texas Tech.
“I’ll answer it honestly: yeah, (Campbell pitched) a lot better than I thought,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He had, I think, a perfect game through 4. Didn’t walk anybody. Once we got him in the stretch, seemed like he lost some of his command, but it was certainly different pitcher than we saw in Gainesville, that’s for sure. I mean it was 94, 96, he was pounding the outer half of the zone and threw enough offspeed pitches to keep us off his fastball. He was good, really good tonight.”
Arkansas as a whole has been good — really good — here in Omaha. The Hogs have fired on all cylinders all week, and Friday night was more of the same. They out-hit Florida 11-3, led by superstar freshman Casey Martin’s four-hit game. And they scored four runs in five innings against Singer, a first-round pick and the D1Baseball Player of the Year.
“They’re one of the best offensive teams I’ve ever faced, if not the best,” Singer said.
Singer has his national championship ring, and O’Sullivan rightly called him “one of the best pitchers who ever put on a Gator uniform.” Singer has many better days ahead of him. But on this day, he was outpitched by Campbell, an exciting but enigmatic talent who is just scratching the surface of his potential.
“I like playing Arkansas, because they’re always well coached. They play extremely well. It’s almost as if we’re playing ourselves,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re playing at a very high level right now. I think getting Campbell to pitch the way he did today, obviously Murphy does his thing, and obviously Knight is one of the best pitchers in our league, and with their offense and defense, they’ve got a really good chance at this thing.”