State of the Hogs:

Kopps an iron man in relief

By: Clay Henry
Published: Sunday, June 6, 2021
Arkansas reliever Kevin Kopps throws a pitch during a game against Nebraska in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium on June 5, 2021.
( Walt Beazley, Arkansas Athletics )
Arkansas reliever Kevin Kopps throws a pitch during a game against Nebraska in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium on June 5, 2021.

What’s left in the tank for Kevin Kopps after throwing 95 pitches through two games of the NCAA Fayetteville Regional?

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn thinks plenty.

Kopps threw 71 pitches — one off his season high — to get a 12-out save as Arkansas defeated Nebraska 5-1 in the winner’s bracket game Saturday night at packed Baum-Walker Stadium.

Kopps, the nation’s best reliever, now has 11 saves and 11 victories for the No. 1 Razorbacks. Don’t be surprised to see him again Sunday night in the championship game.

Van Horn wouldn’t commit when asked about the availability of his sixth-year senior.

“I’m not sure,” Van Horn said. “I probably wouldn’t want to pitch him.

“But he’s a different cat. You’ve seen what I’ve seen all year.”

Asked if he was concerned Kopps had to throw 71 pitches, Van Horn set his jaw and made it clear that his ace is an iron man.

“Not at all, not at all,” Van Horn said. “It’s what he does.”

Kopps will probably have a say in it, and most expect him to ask for the baseball if the Hogs get a chance to close out the regional Sunday night.

He is a different cat, able to adjust to almost any situation, including a tight strike zone by home plate umpire Kellen Levy that produced a night full of 3-2 counts. Arkansas starter Patrick Wicklander and Kopps struggled with the zone, but not as much as six Nebraska pitchers.

With the wind blowing in from left field, it came down to throwing strikes and playing defense. The Cornhuskers didn’t handle it so well.

Nebraska led the Big Ten in fewest walks, but tied its season high with 10 free passes to the Razorbacks. The Cornhuskers also committed two errors. They walked in two runs and another scored on a passed ball.

“That’s not normal for them,” Van Horn said. “They don’t walk a bunch.”

Asked if it was the Cornhuskers missing or an unusual strike zone, Van Horn said, “Probably a combination of the two.”

Wicklander and Kopps handled it OK.

“They did a pretty good job,” Van Horn said. “The zone was jumping all around. Both pitching (staffs) didn’t know where to throw it.”

Wicklander walked two, Kopps none. Wicklander threw 58 of his 92 pitches for strikes. Kopps was 47 for 71. They combined for 105 strikes in 163 pitches.

By comparison, the Nebraska hurlers — in one fewer inning — threw 96 strikes in 182 pitches.

Nebraska coach Will Bolt expressed his displeasure during the game from the dugout and probably a few times when he went to the mound to make pitching changes.

“They were upset,” said Van Horn with some empathy for Bolt, his former player at Nebraska.

“I thought Nebraska pitched really well. I thought we were fortunate to score five runs.”

Bolt didn’t mention the strike zone, but said walks were the difference.

"We had the fewest in the Big Ten," he said. "We are a strike-throwing team. The couple of (errors) were not the difference. The difference was the 10 walks.”

Both coaches referenced the huge number of 3-2 counts and the intense battles in those full counts.

“We extended some at bats against Wicklander and he made 3-2 pitches,” Bolt said. “Honestly, I thought we had competitive at bats against Kopps. We had a lot of competitive at bats against him.”

“There were a lot of 3-2 counts for both teams," Van Horn said. "I don’t know why — well, maybe I do a little bit. I would have liked to see (the view) from behind for both teams. There were a lot of pitches. We walked in two.”

Matt Goodheart didn’t go to a 3-2 count in the first Arkansas at bat. He sliced a 2-1 sinker the opposite way for a leadoff homer.

“(The pitch) was a little bit elevated and I didn’t think it was going out into that wind, but it cut right through it,” Van Horn said. “I think it hit that top railing and the crowd got really loud.”

It gave Goodheart 13 home runs for the season, the fifth Arkansas hitter at that number. It also gave the team 99, breaking the school record set in 2018.

“I actually didn’t know (the record),” Goodheart said. “But when I got into the dugout Dylan Leach told me. I wasn’t following the team total. I just did a small part. We have a good lineup one through nine and some guys have helped (the home run total) off the bench, too.”

Brady Slavens, one of the Hogs with 13 homers, might be available Sunday. He sustained an ankle sprain in the SEC Tournament and hasn’t played since.

“He’s right there,” Van Horn said. “He ran the bases inside today. He took (batting practice). He will do that again tomorrow and you might see him in the field or at (designated hitter).”

You might see Kopps, too.

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