No. 1 Arkansas Upset By NC State, Falls Shy Of College World Series
Arkansas played like the best team in the country all season long. For 14 straight iterations of the rankings, the Razorbacks topped the Baseball America Top 25—the longest streak since Stanford was No. 1 for 15 straight weeks to open the 1998 season.
The Razorbacks won big, they won late, they won pitcher’s duels, they won close, they won with offense, they won going away, they won thanks to spectacular defense, they won with clutch hits. They won 50 games and both the SEC regular-season and tournament championships.
Arkansas beat all comers. It beat Kumar Rocker, it beat Mississippi State, it beat the top three teams in the Big 12 (Texas, Texas Christian and Texas Tech), it beat Tennessee, it beat Nebraska. Its losses were few and far between. It lost just 10 times in the regular season and lost back-to-back games just once—in mid March.
The Razorbacks had plenty of star power. Relief ace Kevin Kopps is the favorite to win the Golden Spikes Award. Lefthander Patrick Wicklander emerged as a strong Friday starter. Second baseman Robert Moore and center fielder Christian Franklin are both high-end prospects. They had experience, they had youth, they had everything you could want in a college baseball team.
"They showed up every weekend and played hard, practiced hard and when they stepped on the field, they really wanted to win," coach Dave Van Horn said. "You don't see that all the time, week in and week out.
"We really don't have a bunch of superstars. We've got some good players, we've got some guys who are going to be drafted, but we didn't have that first-round type guy or first-round arm. We've just got a bunch of good players who play hard. They won an SEC regular-season championship and a conference tournament for the first time ever here."
But in the NCAA Tournament, the best team doesn’t always win. In fact, since 1999, the top-seeded team has not won the national title. That streak will continue this year, as Arkansas lost Sunday night to North Carolina State, 3-2, in the decisive third game of the Fayetteville Super Regional. The Wolfpack is going to the College World Series for the first time since 2013 and just the third time ever. It is one of the hottest teams in the country and is 20-5 since losing a series at Notre Dame in mid April.
In an NCAA Tournament that has been short on Cinderellas—four regionals were won by No. 3 or 4 seeds, but two of those low seeds were Louisiana State and Virginia, hardly scrappy underdogs in the college baseball world—NC State this weekend supplied the biggest upset of the tournament. After getting beat, 21-2, in game 1 on Friday night, the Wolfpack bounced back for a 6-5 victory Saturday in an elimination game and then found a way to win game 3 Sunday, in a way that was decidedly reminiscent of so many Arkansas wins this season.
Van Horn on Sunday elected to start Kopps, who had not started a game all season. He threw seven innings last Monday in a win against Nebraska in the regional final, but he came out of the bullpen on that night. Sunday, with Arkansas facing a do-or-die situation, it was Kopps or bust.
Kopps carried Arkansas as far as he could. He gave up a two-run home run in the third inning to Jonny Butler, but otherwise he didn’t give the Wolfpack much. After that home run, NC State didn’t get a runner in scoring position until the eighth inning, as Kopps smothered the game as he had done so many times this season.
But the trouble with starting your bullpen ace is that there isn’t a security blanket behind him. And Arkansas’ potent offense went cold, stymied by a combination of Matt Willadsen, Chris Vilaman and Evan Justice. The Razorbacks tied the game at two in the seventh on a home run from Cayden Wallace, but they managed just four hits and four walks on the night.
So, even with a pitch count of 114, Kopps came out to start the ninth. Jose Torres, who was hitless in his first three plate appearances, connected on a 1-2 cutter and drove it out to left field for a solo home run—his third home run of the series.
After four months of near perfection, of answering the bell every single time he was called on, Kopps faltered. He was on Sunday asked to carry the Razorbacks to Omaha and fell just short. His night was over and he walked off the mound at Baum-Walker Stadium for the last time, giving way to Wicklander, who finished the ninth inning without incident.
Even down a run in the ninth, the Razorbacks still had a chance. Charlie Welch, Casey Opitz and Jalen Battles were due up and, while those were their 7-8-9 hitters, all three had delivered in clutch moments at the end of games this season. Arkansas had one of the best offenses in the country. It led the nation in home runs (109) and led the SEC in scoring (7.8 runs per game). Its offense could put together big innings in a hurry, thanks to its depth, power and athleticism.
But on Sunday it wasn’t to be. The Razorbacks' final three batters all grounded out against Justice and NC State dogpiled, leaving Arkansas and the 11,084 fans at Baum-Walker Stadium in disbelief.
Though Arkansas fell shy of Omaha, this is a season that will long be remembered in Fayetteville. Kopps’ season—12-1, 0.90 with 11 saves, 131 strikeouts and 18 walks in 89.2 innings—will bring him just about every award he can win. The Razorbacks won conference championships that have eluded them for years. The special moments, walk-offs and sheer regular-season dominance of a team in a difficult year will stand out.
But there will also be what ifs. What if Peyton Pallette hadn’t gotten hurt at the SEC Tournament, depriving the Razorbacks of a key pitcher down the stretch? What if Van Horn had managed the finale differently, what if the offense hadn’t gone cold at the worst possible time, what if Franklin had made another circus catch to rob Butler's home run? What would have happened if Arkansas had gone to Omaha?
About an hour after the game ended Sunday, Kopps finally walked off the field at Baum-Walker Stadium. He stayed on the diamond as long as he could, signing autographs and talking to fans. Finally, with the stadium all but empty, he walked up the tunnel to the clubhouse. He had done all he could.