FAYETTEVILLE — Connor Noland fired a strikeout-filled gem in his debut in the staff ace role and Heston Kjerstad and Christian Franklin combined for three homers as No. 5 Arkansas took care of business on opening day on Friday.
Noland struck out a career-high 11 batters to lead the Razorbacks to a 5-1 win over Eastern Illinois before a crowd of 5,083 on a frigid afternoon at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Arkansas won its 26th consecutive opening day game, its 18th in a row for coach Dave Van Horn.
“I had all three pitches: fastball, curveball and slider,” Noland said. “I felt like I could move the ball inside-outside and just control the at-bats when I needed to.”
Kjerstad homered twice, to both sides of the field, went 3-for-4 and drove in three runs.
He ripped a solo shot on a line over the right field wall in the fifth inning to follow Franklin’s two-run blast.
Two innings later, he launched a towering shot that crawled just over the wall in left field into the Arkansas bullpen to make it 5-1. Noland (1-0) edged out left-hander Patrick Wicklander for the opening day start and made the decision pay off for Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs.
“His stuff was really good,” Van Horn said. “He started off that first inning or so and he was wild up. He usually doesn’t miss up too much, and then he really got it going. His off-speed pitch was incredible today.”
Noland allowed just two hits and a walk and permitted one unearned run while throwing 86 pitches over 6 2/3 innings.
“Their pitcher is fantastic,” Eastern Illinois coach Jason Anderson said. “We kept it close and forced him to throw a ton of sliders up there, which is probably the best slider we’re gonna see all year.
“At least I hope that’s the best slider we’ll see all year. But I thought we really competed for the first game and what we were facing.”
While Noland was mowing down Panthers, 6-5 right-hander Will Klein was spotting his 95 mph fastball effectively and providing a pitcher’s duel through two outs in the fifth inning before the Razorbacks put together a three-run frame.
“Big-time guy,” Van Horn said. “A big-body kid that throws the ball downhill. I think if he stays healthy that he’ll pitch for a long time. He’s a big-time prospect. I’m sure the lingo has it that he probably made a little money today. He went through a pretty good lineup a few times.”
Klein had seven strikeouts and gave up six hits, two of them home runs, on 95 pitches through 5 2/3 innings.
“I didn’t expect him to go that deep, but he really pitched,” Anderson said. “It was the first time he’s really started, and this was not an easy draw to do something like that. He was really, really impressive.”
Arkansas scratched out a single run in the first inning after new leadoff man Braydon Webb, who would have a critical at-bat to ignite the fifth-inning rally, walked and advanced to second on Klein’s errant pick-off throw.
With one out, Kjerstad stroked a ball the opposite way into the hole on the left side to bring home Webb.
“That first inning, the atmosphere at Baum-Walker, just kind of ridiculous, and I let that get to me a little bit, let it speed me up,” Klein said. “But then after that, I feel like I settled in for a decent amount.”
Klein got the first two batters in the fifth inning, then thought he had struck out Webb before the left-fielder laced a 3-2 pitch through the right side.
“I thought I had strike three back to back on Webb,” Klein said. “But yeah, that was tough.
“Franklin, I threw it right down the middle for him and he took advantage of it.”
Franklin’s homer came on a 1-0 count on the first pitch after a mound visit from pitching coach Tim Brown.
“From the scouting report, we knew he was going to attack you with a lot of fastballs, so that’s what I was ready for and I was … on time and that’s what I got and put a good swing on it,” said Franklin, who hit out of the second spot in the order.
Kjerstad said he was “hunting a heater” on a 3-1 pitch following the Franklin shot that made it 3-0.
“He was being aggressive with it and he just threw it low and in and I got a good swing on it, and it just luckily stayed up and high enough and squeaked over the fence,” Kjerstad said.
Noland faced the minimum through six innings and did not allow a Panther past second base in that span despite giving up a couple of baserunners. Catcher Casey Opitz gunned out leadoff man Grant Emme at third base while trying to advance on a ball in the dirt in the first inning. Emme had singled and advanced on a stolen base before Opitz caught him gambling.
“It helps when you have Opitz behind the dish,” Noland said. “You’ve got guys getting big leads and doing stuff that’s out of the ordinary and him just taking advantage of that. When you can do that, it saves me pitches and helps you get deep in a game.”
Opitz threw behind Dane Toppel, who had walked, to pick him off at first base for the final out of the third inning.
Noland got a piece of bad luck to allow an unearned run in his final frame, which opened with Emme’s leadoff single to center field. He advanced on a ground ball back to Noland and a fly out to right field.
Emme scored when Matt Mackey’s ground ball to shortstop rolled under Casey Martin’s glove.
Arkansas first baseman Cole Austin went 2-for-4 in his debut as a graduate transfer, while Franklin, Webb and Nesbit had one hit each to round out the Hogs’ eight-hit performance.
Marshall Denton and Kevin Kopps allowed one hit each over the final 2 1/3 innings to wrap up the Razorbacks four-hitter.