What a relief: Hogs' bullpen shuts down LSU to win series

By: Matt Jones
Published: Saturday, May 11, 2019
Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps throws during a game against LSU on Friday, May 10, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps throws during a game against LSU on Friday, May 10, 2019, in Fayetteville.

— Coming out of fall practice last year, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn felt he had the pieces in place for a strong bullpen.

With a mixture of experienced pitchers and newcomers with potential, Van Horn hinted his 2019 bullpen could be one of the best in his 17-year tenure.

As is often the case, the roles haven't materialized exactly how Van Horn envisioned last October. Notably there was the season-ending injury to Caleb Bolden and some freshmen who have failed to throw strikes.

But collectively the Razorbacks' relievers are rounding into form as the regular season winds down, giving Van Horn a good unit that can typically keep a lead - or a deficit - from getting away.

On Friday, Arkansas' bullpen out-pitched LSU's bullpen in an 11-6 decision at Baum-Walker Stadium that gave the No. 4 Razorbacks their fourth consecutive series win.

The Razorbacks' relievers threw 5 2/3 strong innings to keep the team in the game after LSU jumped to a 3-0 lead against starter Patrick Wicklander, a freshman who recorded just 10 outs in his shortest start against a conference opponent.

Kevin Kopps' scoreless four innings allowed Arkansas to chip away at the lead until Heston Kjerstad tied the game with a solo homer in the sixth inning. The floodgates opened in the seventh and eighth innings as the Razorbacks pulled away.

Arkansas scored nine of its runs against LSU's bullpen, including three against the Tigers' top closer, Zack Hess, a former Friday starter who took the loss after inheriting a 3-1 lead.

Kopps earned his fifth win after inheriting a 3-1 deficit and entering at Arkansas' most crucial moment Friday.

With the bases loaded and one out, the right-handed Kopps turned to his strongest pitch, the cutter, to get LSU catcher Saul Garza to hit into an inning-ending double play.

"That was huge to have a guy come out of the bullpen like that and slam the door," Kjerstad said. "You know, Kopps has done that multiple times this year but he came in and the bases were loaded, basically a tough spot for anyone to come into as a pitcher, and he pitched it well. He got the ground ball turned into the double play and that was huge to give us a little bit of momentum.

"And then after that he just slammed the door on them and kept getting us back in the dugout very quickly and it ignited our offense. We were just trying to put some runs up for him. He was doing work out there and we just wanted to help him out."

Kopps issued a leadoff walk in the fifth inning, but retired the next 10 batters he faced. He didn't allow a hit until the eighth inning when Antoine Duplantis doubled with one out to bring the tying run to the plate in a 5-3 game.

Instead of turning to left-handed closer Matt Cronin to face the lefty-dominant LSU lineup, Van Horn opted to go with Jacob Kostyshock, a right hander who pitches lefties well.

Kostyshock threw nothing but fastballs that registered between 94-97 mph on the stadium radar gun. He got LSU's hottest hitter, Daniel Cabrera, to fly out and pinch hitter Cade Beloso to strike out to end the inning.

"I was pretty comfortable with my fastball," Kostyshock said. "Everything else in the pen felt pretty good warming up, but I felt like I could just provide a fastball tonight and it worked."

Van Horn was even complimentary of Matt Cronin, who was called upon in the ninth inning after freshman Elijah Trest loaded the bases with no outs. Cronin gave up a three-run triple to LSU leadoff hitter Zach Smith, but didn't give the Tigers anymore room to mount a comeback.

"It was intense because the bases were loaded and what they (LSU) did last week with a big comeback against Ole Miss (when the Tigers scored six runs with two outs in the ninth inning to force extra innings)," Van Horn said. "They're over there thinking, 'Hey, we can do this,' and it was good for Matt to come in" and finish.

Kostyshock and Kopps each were complimentary of one another after the game.

"Dominance - that’s what we expect out of Kevin," Kostyshock said. "I think he provides it every time."

"He saved me," Kopps said of Kostyshock. "He came in and fired some bullets and got some guys out."

Arkansas' bullpen is having success because it is back near full strength after a season in which several pitchers have been unavailable at various times.

Kopps, who missed last season because of Tommy John surgery, has been slow to work his way back into his 2017 form, when he started the championship games of the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Fayetteville Regional as a freshman.

That began to change last month with a strong outing in the 15-inning win at Auburn, but there have still been some hiccups along the way. Just last week at Kentucky, Kopps loaded the bases without recording an out in the series opener, but pitched well when he was called upon in a doubleheader two days later.

"That outing that he didn’t do well, that’s one of the first one lately that hasn’t gone real well," Van Horn said, "so we figured he’d throw well tonight and he did."

Kostyshock also has missed time. The junior was unavailable for series at Auburn and Vanderbilt because of soreness in his throwing arm.

Cody Scroggins, a former starter who now has settled into a long reliever behind Game 3 starter Connor Noland, missed series against Mississippi State and Tennessee with an ailment similar to Kostyshock's.

Arkansas weathered the storm and eventually grew its lead in the SEC West while shorthanded. Now the Razorbacks have a 2 1/2-game lead in the SEC West with four games to play, and a full batch of fresh bullpen arms that have shown they can keep a lead.

"I think the bullpen has always been as good as it is right now," Kostyshock said. "I just think it’s been - pieces were hurt, people weren’t confident. I think what you are seeing right now is what we knew was going to happen."

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