It might not have been a game for the ages, or the pitching duel many hoped for, but in a battle between the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the nation Thursday, the top-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks called the Kopps to lock up the Vanderbilt Commodores and advance to the winner’s bracket of the SEC Baseball Tournament with a 6-4 victory at Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
Kevin Kopps that is.
The SEC’s Pitcher of the Year smothered the Commodores in three spectacular relief innings, striking out five of nine batters and surrendering no hits to earn his ninth save of the year and to push the Hogs (44-10, 22-8 SEC) into Saturday’s winner’s bracket game at 3:30 p.m. where they await the winner of today’s 1:30 p.m. contest between Ole Miss (40-18, 18-12) and Vanderbilt (40-14, 19-10).
Florida (38-19, 17-13), also in the winner’s bracket, awaits the winner of today’s 10 a.m. game between Tennessee (43-15, 20-10) and Alabama (31-23, 12-17) for a noon contest Saturday.
Kopps’ wizardry with his cutter left the Commodores batters shaking their heads as they swung and missed, and then took that long walk of shame back to the dugout, just like so many hitters have this season.
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn had indicated Kopps would pitch this week, but only a limited amount. However’ the right-hander’s appearance was much like his usual performance.
“I think that might have been the idea early in the week,” Kopps said of limiting his work in the tournament during an SEC Network interview, “but that changed as we prepared for this game.”
Van Horn allowed that we might see Kopps on the mound again later this weekend. That’s been his role all season. Kopps’ pitch count for a regular-season series has been like a starter’s. Those pitches just are just spread over two games.
Kopps is the Hogs’ Terminator, and he nearly perfectly defended the Hogs’ two-run lead on a night where both squad’s starters struggled.
“We wanted Kevin to go two innings, the eighth and ninth, if we could keep the lead,” Van Horn said. “Kevin was outstanding. He got three outs on six pitches. It could have been three outs on four pitches if we turn the double play.”
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin was more than a bit irritated after the loss, keeping his answers in the post-game teleconference curt.
When asked about Kopps, Corbin said, “He obviously pitched very well, but he didn’t have anything to do with the first six innings.”
Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker (11-3), who lived in Fayetteville for a few years as a boy when his dad Tracy coached the defensive line for Arkansas, started strong, striking out all three Hogs in the first inning.
However, he faded quickly, making it through just three and a third innings, giving up 4 walks, 4 hits and 5 runs to the Hogs. The Hogs forced him into 39 pitches in the second inning as Rocker’s control slipped away.
“Our plan was to try to keep him in the zone, lay off the high fastball,” Van Horn said after the game. “And … it’s hard to do, but our guys did it a few times. It led to them getting ahead in the count. Probably led to a hit here and there and also led to some walks so we got his pitch count up. That’s what we needed to do.”
Likewise Arkansas starter Patrick Wicklander struggled with location, walking three, giving up 5 hits and 3 runs in three and two-thirds innings. Arkansas’ Ryan Costeiu (7-2) picked up the win, pitching one and a third innings.
Wicklander (5-1) looked like he might get out of the first inning unscathed after giving up a couple of hits, but Arkansas center fielder Christian Franklin couldn’t find the ball in the dusk sky on a C.J Rodriguez blooper that plated two Vanderbilt runs. The hit came just after the Hogs failed to turn a double play.
“He fought it,” Van Horn said of his usually dependable starter, “but he just didn’t have it (control) tonight. We just felt like it was time to get him. He was just too wild.”
Razorback designated hitter Matt Goodheart broke out of his 1 for 30 slump with three RBI, two coming on his double in the fourth inning that chased Rocker from the game and gave the Hogs a 4-3 lead.
“I got ahead in the count, and I didn’t think he was going to give me a fastball to hit with a base open, and he had a right-handed hitter coming up,” Goodheart said in a Zoom teleconference following the game. “But I was kind of thinking, maybe, if he does give me that fastball, I’ll be ready for it, and I hit it.”
Cullen Smith sizzled a single to right to extend the Hogs’ lead to 5-3 in the fourth.
Right fielder Ethan Bates also had a good night for the Razorbacks with two RBI, a walk, and a hit. His second-inning single gave the Hogs their first lead and his sac-fly in the fifth pushed the Razorbacks’ lead to 6-4.
“Ethan Bates had a great night for us,” Van Horn said. “His first at bat, he gets a great hit off Rocker to cut that lead in half. His second at bat, he walked and went from first to third. He had a sac fly and drove in a run. He just had a super game for us, and made some plays in the outfield.”
So, the Hogs are sitting pretty with today off going into Saturday’s semifinals, which reverts back to a single-elimination format. The Hogs will take batting practice and lift weights today at Samford University, Van Horn said.
Whether Saturday’s opponent is the Commodores again or the Rebels, it will be a tough ballgame. Van Horn said Caleb Bolden will likely start on the mound.
“We’ll do what we can to win on Saturday,” Van Horn said. “Hopefully, we get to Sunday. If we get there anything can happen. It will probably be a little bit of everybody [pitching] if we are fortunate enough to get to Sunday.”
While Van Horn has never made it a major goal to win the SEC Tournament, it is one of only two accomplishments missing on his resume of his Hall of Fame-type career. The other, of course, being a national title.
Having the Hogs primed for next weekend’s NCAA Regional is his primary concern going forward. However, there is no doubt Van Horn would be proud to find a place at Baum-Walker Stadium for an SEC Tournament trophy if his Razorbacks can pull off two more victories.