Biblical strongman Samson had his flowing locks. Captain Marvel has his magic word, SHAZAM! Popeye has his spinach. Evidently Arkansas Razorback pitcher Kevin Kopps has his beet juice?
When asked last Sunday what was fueling his success on the mound, the senior from Sugarland, Texas remarked “beet juice” with a huge smile on his face. He even reiterated the point later in the interview.
Now, it was pretty clear Kopps was just joshing with the media, but if I were Arkansas skipper Dave Van Horn, I’d make sure the trainers loaded up plenty of beet juice for the No. 1 Razorbacks’ trip to Knoxville, Tenn. this weekend to face the Eastern Division-leading and No.4-ranked Tennessee Vols, just in case.
Next up for the No. 1 Razorbacks
Opponent: at No. 4 Tennessee
When: 5:30 p.m. Friday, May 14
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
Television: SEC Network+
May 15 – 11 a.m. at Tennessee, SEC Network
May 16 – 12 p.m. at Tennessee, SEC Network+
I’d have that beet juice ready for Kopps any way he liked it — chilled, straight, on the rocks, or shaken and not stirred — if it helped him perform the way he’s been doing throughout his thoroughly dominating senior season.
He has been one of the keys in the Hogs beating the juice out of all comers this season.
Kopps was expected to be an effective closer for the Razorbacks coming into the season, but he’s been more than that this year.
He’s been the Hogs’ Terminator.
With a 7-0 record and a nation-leading .072 ERA in 22 appearances, Kopps has struck out 83 batters against just 13 walks and recorded 7 saves.
The versatile senior has the endurance to be a starter for the Hogs, but by using him as a closer and a middle reliever, Van Horn has been able to deploy him in two of three games in the Razorbacks’ weekend series much of this season.
Kopps, a team captain, has played a decisive role in the Razorbacks winning every series they’ve played so far this season.
Perfect Game named Kopps its National Pitcher of the Week on Tuesday after he blistered Georgia by throwing 111 pitches during 7 1/3 innings of scoreless relief that included eight strikeouts. Kopps has locked up batters for 21 2/3 consecutive innings since last giving up a run against Texas A&M in mid April.
Kopps got his seventh save of the season in the opening game of the Georgia series last Friday, and then picked up his seventh win of the season, going the final 4 1/3 innings on Sunday.
Last week the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association named Kopps the pitcher of the month, and he is on the organization’s watchlist for “Stopper of the Year” that goes to the nation’s best reliever each season.
He stuns batters with his cutter, slider — whatever you call that crazy pitch — and is effective with his fast ball, too.
Georgia hit him pretty hard last weekend in the first game with a couple of hits, but Kopps built up enough steam to make those hits meaningless. No team has truly been able to figure him out, which makes the Razorbacks very dangerous even when they are trailing or playing a bit off.
Last Sunday, it looked like the Bulldogs might just take the series from the Hogs as they held what appeared to be a sturdy 3-0 lead before Kopps entered the game for the last out of the fourth inning.
However, when Kopps stepped on the mound, it seemed to send a jolt of confidence into the entire team. It was sorta like when Captain America picked up Thor’s hammer in “Avengers: End Game.”
The Razorbacks’ offense woke up plating 2 runs in the fifth, 1 in the sixth and 2 more in the seventh to snatch a 5-3 victory away from the Bulldogs.
Kopps should be rested and ready to go whenever he’s called upon for this key series against the Vols, coached by former Arkansas assistant Tony Vitello.
Vitello credited Van Horn during a Zoom teleconference Thursday for being instrumental in helping him get the head coaching position at Tennessee.
First pitch on Friday is at 5:30 p.m. with Razorback lefty Patrick Wicklander (4-1, 1.69 ERA) facing Tennessee right-hander Chad Dallas (8-1, 3.86 ERA). The game can be streamed on SEC Network Plus.
Arkansas right-hander Peyton Paulette (1-2, 4.01 ERA) gets the start in Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against Vols southpaw Will Heflin (2-2, 4.17 ERA).
Van Horn will decide who will start on the mound for Arkansas in Sunday’s noon finale following the outcome on Saturday’s game, while Tennessee plans to start righty Blade Tidwell (6-2, 3.71 ERA).
The Vols (38-11, 17-7 SEC) and Hogs (37-9, 17-7 SEC) are tied for the SEC overall lead, a half game ahead of No. 2 Vanderbilt (35-10, 16-7 SEC) and a full game ahead of Mississippi State (35-11, 16-8 SEC) in a very tight league race with two series left to play.
The overall regular-season title and the seeding for the SEC Baseball Tournament likely will not be settled until league play is completed on May 22, but the winner of the Arkansas-Tennessee series will be in good striking position going into the final weekend.
The Razorbacks host the No. 10 Florida Gators (33-15, 15-9 SEC) on May 20-22 at Baum-Walker Stadium. Arkansas’ athletic director announced Thursday that the stadium will be at full capacity for the contest.