Arkansas Beats Vanderbilt In Highly Anticipated SEC Tournament Showdown

Image credit: Arkansas righthander Kevin Kopps (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The SEC Tournament on Thursday night delivered the matchup fans had for weeks been clamoring for: No. 1 Arkansas vs. No. 2 Vanderbilt.

The Razorbacks (44-10) and Commodores (40-14) have proven themselves to be the two best teams in the conference, but they did not meet in the regular season. While a weekend series would have been preferable, a winner’s bracket game in Hoover, Ala., with Arkansas lefthander Patrick Wicklander and Vanderbilt righthander Kumar Rocker on the mound was a welcome the next-best thing. It also may well have been a College World Series preview.

The anticipated pitcher’s duel between Rocker and Wicklander didn’t transpire, but No. 1 Arkansas vs. No. 2 Vanderbilt didn’t disappoint. The Razorbacks defeated the Commodores, 6-4, to advance to Saturday’s bracket final. Vanderbilt now faces an elimination game Friday against Mississippi.

Arkansas has been playing and thriving in these kinds of matchups all season long. The Razorbacks are 18-4 against teams currently ranked in the Top 25 and all but three of those games have come away from the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium.

So, while facing Rocker, perhaps the biggest name in college baseball, in a tournament environment put added an extra layer or two to the showdown, it didn’t faze the Razorbacks. With the exception of Wicklander not having his best control, Arkansas played its typical game. The lineup went to work, scoring six runs on six hits and seven walks, with Robert Moore collecting two hits and two runs and Matt Goodheart driving in three. Led by relief ace Kevin Kopps, who threw three perfect innings to close out the victory, the bullpen shut down the Commodores. They also played clean defense, turning a pair of double plays.

It was, as coach Dave Van Horn said, a familiar script for the Razorbacks.

“We have enough pitching to keep us in games,” Van Horn said. “We usually don’t make too many mistakes in the field where we give up a real big inning, and then we fight you at the plate a little bit and put together an inning or two. That’s been the formula. That’s been kind of the demeanor of this team. They just keep playing. They play hard.”

Both Rocker and Wicklander struggled with control and were lifted for relievers in the fourth inning. Rocker gave up five runs on four hits and four walks in 3.1 innings, striking out six. Wicklander gave up three runs on five hits and three walks in 3.2 innings. He struck out one batter.

In addition to the control problems, Rocker and Wicklander were both likely working on tighter pitch counts than normal. With the NCAA Tournament beginning in a week, there was no need for either coach to overextend his starter.

For Arkansas, an early move to the bullpen is no problem. After Ryan Costeiu and Caden Monke covered the next 2.1 innings, the Razorbacks made an early move to Kopps, who this week was named SEC pitcher of the year. Kopps responded by retiring the last nine hitters of the game, striking out five.

Van Horn said the original plan was for Kopps to throw the final two innings, but with Monke struggling with his control, he made the move early. Kopps was ready for the call.

“I felt really good warming up today,” Kopps said. “I knew I’d be ready to extend if they needed me to, and I just kind of went out and did that.”

Kopps dominated the Commodores’ potent offense the same way he has blown away hitters all season long. He pounded the strike zone with his cutter, which has become one of the best pitches in the country.

As has happened so often this season, Kopps stole the show. He’s having a historically great season, improving to 10-0, 0.71 with nine saves, 102 strikeouts and 15 walks in 63.1 innings.

With Kopps leading the way, the Razorbacks are having a historically great season of their own. They’ve taken all comers, never flinching from the spotlight. As it has all season long, that mindset served them well Thursday in a matchup against the reigning national champions.

“They just show up and play whoever we’re playing,” Van Horn said. “That’s kind of been their mindset really since the beginning of the season.”

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