State of the Hogs: Kopps locks up Bulldogs late

By: Clay Henry
Published: Saturday, April 20, 2019
Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps fields a ball during a game against Mississippi State on Friday, April 19, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps fields a ball during a game against Mississippi State on Friday, April 19, 2019, in Fayetteville.

— To be successful long-term in college baseball, the magic elixir has always been the ability to manage a pitching staff.

Yes, chicks dig the long ball. It’s the great Greg Maddux line from the Nike commercial.

But it’s figuring out how to piece together pitching with a finite roster that has always put Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn in the elite category.

It was there in plain sight again Friday night when the Razorbacks thumped No. 2 Mississippi State 12-5 to take a 2-0 lead in the series.

It’s knowing how to preserve arms long-term with an eye toward postseason play, not just the now. Van Horn’s 17 seasons as UA head coach have been marked by one constant: the knowledge of how to figure out the pitching.

Yes, the No. 10 Razorbacks have generally been good on offense and defense, too. But Van Horn knows how to build a bullpen and preserve it throughout the season.

It’s a given that Kevin Kopps is one of the best pitchers for the Razorbacks this season. The redshirt sophomore from Sugar Land, Texas, is battling back from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for all of the 2018 season.

Van Horn predicted in the fall that Kopps, although often pitching just one inning, might be a starter at some point in the spring. New pitching coach Matt Hobbs said Kopps “crushed” the rehab from surgery and might have the most electric stuff on the staff.

That’s saying something in a group that also features probable high-draft choices Matt Cronin and Isaiah Campbell. The word from scrimmages was that Kopps was the one UA hitters feared the most.

But there had been setbacks in January. Kopps wasn’t locating all of his pitches with consistency, something that often happens in the first few months back after elbow surgery.

It’s starting to fall in place, as Mississippi State learned Friday night. It was Kopps, said Van Horn, that brought “normalcy” to a game that featured 11 pitchers, seven by the Bulldogs.

The Hogs led just 7-5 when Kopps took over in the sixth inning. Starter Patrick Wicklander had posted two goose eggs to help the home team scoot to a 5-0 lead, but it looked more like a Sunday game in the SEC - when pitching is gone - than the second game of a series that followed a well-pitched opener.

Kopps struggled to open the sixth, hitting the first and then walking the third. From then on, he was lights out. His signature pitch, a dancing cut fastball, began to dazzle the Bulldogs. He retired the last eight batters, going three innings with a season-high 47 pitches.

With the Hogs up by seven runs, Van Horn decided to protect Kopps for the future – perhaps in an expanded role – with Marshall Denton pitching the no-hit ninth inning.

“Kopps kind of did it for us tonight,” Van Horn said. “He brought some normalcy and slowed down the game.”

It was Kopps' team-high ninth SEC appearance. He was credited with the victory to even his record at 3-3.

“He did a great job,” Van Horn said. “Like I said earlier, he slowed the game down. Both sides were walking too many. It’s not like it was a small strike zone.

“Really, he hits the first and then there’s a walk, and I said, ‘Oh, baby, here we go.’ But he got it going.

“We let him go a little. We hadn’t taken him above 50 (pitches).”

It’s significant because the Hogs have been struggling to keep pitchers going in league play. Jacob Kostyshock has missed the last two weekends. Van Horn revealed that Cody Scroggins, with four SEC starts, was not on the roster this weekend and probably out next weekend, too.

“We found out that he was (sore) last weekend in Vandy,” Van Horn said. “Cody pitched two innings and was having trouble. He told us he wasn’t going to go back out for the third inning.”

Van Horn said Scroggins, who missed the 2017 season with Tommy John surgery, doesn’t have a major injury.

“But we are going to take care of our guys,” Van Horn said. “He’s out a couple of weekends. We are trying to piece it together and have everyone at the end (of the season).”

Kopps said the key Friday night was “not trying to overthrow” the cutter.

“I just wanted to throw it over the plate and let my fielders take care of it,” Kopps said.

There were plenty of ground balls, but there were also three strikeouts.

“He was untouchable with the cutter,” catcher Casey Opitz said. “That’s what it mostly was tonight, probably better tonight. It’s tough on the hitters. The hitters couldn’t tell what it was.”

Kopps said the routine was a bit different in this outing. His usual thought is to keep the cutter low in the zone, but with all of the walks, it might have changed his focus point.

“I aimed a little higher,” he said. “I want it low and away to the righties. Sometimes it gets away from me and goes inside, but it still works.

“It was a little higher tonight and that was fine.”

Van Horn has an idea that Kopps might be ready for more pitches per weekend soon.

“Maybe we stretch him out in games, or maybe we go with him Friday and Sunday,” Van Horn said. “He’s building up to that.

“Like I said, we want to have everyone for the end of the season. I did think his command was a lot better. Tonight the cutter was elevated, but it was still moving.

“I’ll say that when it’s down, there are times when (the hitters) don’t know what it is.”

That’s what it was like for the Arkansas hitters in the fall. With some tender-armed pitchers trying to figure everything out, it appears the Hogs have one who is close to doing just that.

It looks like their coach is doing just that, too. Van Horn looks like he’s figuring it out once again.

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