Kopps, Clutch Homers Lead Arkansas to Super Regionals
In the Fayetteville Regional, Nebraska pushed Arkansas as hard as anyone has all season, but after falling to the Cornhuskers on Sunday night, the Razorbacks sealed the deal on Monday with a 6-2 win to move on to the super regionals this weekend against North Carolina State.
In the end, it was the same old standbys that came through for the Razorbacks: Kevin Kopps and clutch home runs, and one probably wouldn’t have been enough to win without the other.
With Kopps not having pitched on Sunday, he was all but assured of getting into the game on Monday at some point, and with the Cornhuskers scoring two runs in the first three innings against starter Jaxon Wiggins, that point came in the third.
A couple of Wiggins walks, a sac bunt and a RBI groundout had already allowed one run to score, and with a man still in scoring position and Big Ten player of the year Spencer Schwellenbach coming to the plate, the moment of truth was right then and there. Kopps got Schwellenbach to fly out to end the threat.
The only other time Kopps was really threatened for the rest of the night was in the fifth, when Logan Foster singled with one out and moved to third two batters later on a Jaxon Hallmark single. But Kopps again retired Schwellenbach to end the rally, this time on a groundout to shortstop.
He really hit the accelerator after that point. Over the final four innings, he faced one over the minimum, and that was with two outs in the ninth when he hit Cam Chick with a pitch when the game was in hand. All told, he threw seven shutout innings, giving up three hits and no walks with eight strikeouts on 90 pitches. All of this, mind you, coming two days after he threw four scoreless innings and 71 pitches against these same Huskers, which came one day after he threw 24 pitches in 2.1 innings against NJIT. If you’re waiting for the heavy workload to get to Kopps, you’re going to have to wait a bit longer.
Kopps has been excellent all season. He’s having almost inarguably the best season of any pitcher in the nation, but this performance, regardless of how the rest of the postseason goes, is one that will live on forever. It’s his piece de resistance. It’s his masterpiece. It could also very well be the outing that delivers the righthander national player of the year honors.
But even with Kopps having steadied the ship, there was the problem of Arkansas having to support him.
Nebraska starter Cade Povich, who had a relatively short outing against Northeastern to open the regional three days ago, came out strong, throwing four scoreless innings.
But he hit a bit of a wall in the fifth as the Arkansas comeback began in earnest when catcher Casey Opitz woke up the crowd with a solo home run to left. One inning later, second baseman Robert Moore, as clutch a hitter as the Razorbacks have in their lineup, tied it up with a solo homer of his own.
Then, in the eighth, after loading the bases while Nebraska scrambled to find the reliever who could get it out of trouble, Arkansas took the lead on a wild pitch. One pitch later, pinch-hitter Charlie Welch crushed a three-run homer to put the game out of reach at 6-2, and if Baum-Walker Stadium had a roof, the roar of the crowd after the Welch homer would have blown it clear off.
Arkansas, almost like it needs increasingly difficult situations to arise to stay sharp in a season when it has been dominant, played with fire like it never has against Nebraska Sunday and Monday, but as it has all season long, it found a way to win thanks to Kopps and well-timed long balls. If Kopps hadn't come on when he did and shut things down, Nebraska might have gotten out to too big a lead for the home runs to matter. And if not for the home runs, Kopps pitching as well as he did would have been for nothing. Instead, it got both things, and it won.
If you’re into believing in teams of destiny, you could be forgiven for believing that Monday’s win was yet another sign that Arkansas is that team in 2021.