The No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks won the deciding game of the Fayetteville regional versus the Nebraska Cornhuskers by coming back to win 6-2 on Monday night. Despite falling behind 2-0 after the first three innings, the Hogs were able to put together six runs on six hits including three home runs to rally against the Huskers in a winner-take-all game.
An early appearance by Kevin Kopps in the third held the Huskers scoreless for the remainder of the game, and a huge eighth inning gave the Hogs the lead on a wild pitch followed by a three-run homer by Charlie Welch. The Hogs advance to take on NC State in the super regional later in the week.
After the starting pitcher had been the subject of some debate going into the final game of the regional, Dave Van Horn went with Jaxon Wiggins. The freshman with a 4.71 ERA made his fourth start of the year and first of the regional. Van Horn chose him over Caleb Bolden who had pitched only 1.1 innings in a win on Friday.
Wiggins started off well with only an 11-pitch first inning, but Luke Roskam belted a solo home run off the new athletic facility in right field for the early 1-0 lead. It was Roskam’s 10th homer of the season.
After giving up two walks in the third, his day would be done, and DVH wasted no time calling Kevin Kopps out of the bullpen. Kopps had thrown 95 pitches this weekend, and it would be the earliest the closer has ever entered a game this year.
Nebraska would add another run, however. Some small ball by Joe Acker and Jozon Hallmark brought villain Mojo Hagge home. The crowd at Baum-Walker was engulfed in nervous silence as the Hogs were unable to generate any offense in response.
Nebraska went with their ace Cade Povich who had pitched earlier in the regional but was still fresh enough to go. The left-fielder held the Hogs scoreless through the first four innings.
The Hog bats were silent as they had only managed nine total hits over the last two games against the Cornhuskers. Christian Franklin continued to struggle, going hitless for the ninth time in the last 12 games. He’s had trouble with low inside pitches as he went 0-for-3 on the evening. At least he made another great play defensively.
Brady Slavens also went 0-for-3 with multiple strikeouts on some overeager swings after coming back from his ankle injury.
However, despite only one hit heading into the fifth for Arkansas, Casy Optiz would finally get the Hogs on the board by blasting a fastball for a solo home run. It was only his second of the season.
For the first time, the tension was broken as the Hogs looked to keep on the pressure. After a Jalen Battles double and a walk, Povich would be relieved. Cam Wynne came in and finished the inning.
Wynne wouldn’t last long though. In the sixth, Big Game Bob Moore took a slider right in his wheelhouse for a home run to tie the game 2-2. Moore now leads the team with 14 homers.
Meanwhile, Kopps continued to hold the Huskers through the middle innings and just kept going. He sat down the order in the sixth, in the seventh, and in the eighth.
Leading off the bottom of the eighth, Cayden Wallace struck out, and Slavens grounded out to bring up Franklin once again. Despite struggling with his timing, Franklin battled Nebraska reliever Koty Frank to draw a walk after 10 pitches. After another walk was issued to Moore, Nebraska coach Will Bolt seemed hesitant to make a change with Jake Bunz remaining in the bullpen. Bunz had struggled to throw strikes the last time he faced the Hogs, but after using up most of their pitching over the last four games, Bolt called him to the mound. Bunz walked Opitz and up stepped Charlie Welch to pinch hit. A wild pitch would score Franklin, and Arkansas finally had the lead.
Then on the next pitch, Welch rocketed the ball all the way to Dickson and sent the packed crowd into delirium.
The Hogs broke the game wide open with a 6-2 lead on the biggest swing of Welch’s life.
Credit to DVH for waiting to use him at the exact right moment as Welch has always been most effective as a pinch hitter instead of the designated hitter in the lineup.
With the game in hand, Kopps finished what he started by striking out the first two batters in the ninth before getting the final out on a pop-up to seal the victory in an instant classic.
In the end, what we witnessed last night from Kevin Kopps was one of the greatest individual performances in Razorback history. Few expected him to appear for more than two or three innings. Instead, Kopps put in a Herculean effort with 90 more pitches to bring his total to 185 thrown over 13.2 innings and four days with only a day’s rest in between. On Monday, over seven innings, he gave up only three hits with zero walks and had eight strikeouts. He sat 12 straight batters at one point and only got stronger as the game progressed. His record is now 12-0 with 11 saves and an ERA of 0.68 as he did not allow a single run in the regional. Nobody in the country is close to these types of numbers.
This team does not win without Kopps. In today’s era of pitch counts and “load management,” Kopps is a throwback to over 40 years ago when major league pitchers used to throw over 300 innings in a season. Compared to other sports, you can put this effort up there with Darren McFadden’s 321 yards against South Carolina in 2007 and any of Todd Day or Mason Jones’s performances on the court. We might never see an effort like this again.
Arkansas is now 49-11 overall and will play NC State in the super regional at a time to be announced later in the week.