Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Kopps cements status as best in college baseball
Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps (facing) is greeted by catcher Casey Opitz after the Razorbacks recorded the final out of an NCAA regional game against Nebraska on Monday, June 7, 2021, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Ballots are due Tuesday for the Dick Howser Trophy, one of two prominent national player of the year awards in college baseball.
Kevin Kopps will be at the top of mine. Who else could you choose?
Kopps is the reason Arkansas is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and has been ranked atop the college baseball polls for most of 2021. On Monday, his ERA (0.68) fell below the number of innings he has pitched (79 2/3).
“Take him off our team and where are we at?” Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said last week. “I don’t even like to think about that.”
Kopps' value was on display in front of a national TV audience Monday night in one of the most entertaining games this year. Two days removed from throwing 71 pitches and three days from throwing 24, Kopps delivered a 90-pitch masterpiece over seven scoreless innings to shut down Nebraska after the Cornhuskers had taken a 2-0 lead in a winner-take-all game in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional.
Kopps earned his 12th win as the Razorbacks rallied to win 6-2. His final line: 3 hits, 0 walks, 8 strikeouts.
It was the 23rd time Kopps has factored into a decision for a team that has won 49 games. And like most SEC weekends down the stretch, Kopps factored into multiple decisions over the course of the four-day regional.
But nothing during the regular season came remotely close to what Kopps did during the regional. He came out of the bullpen in the fourth inning of the Razorbacks' regional opener against NJIT and stabilized things for 2 1/3 innings until Arkansas built a big lead.
He pitched the final four innings of the Razorbacks' first matchup with Nebraska on Saturday, then shattered his previous career-long outing Monday.
Anyone who follows college baseball had their eyes on the wild end to the game. It was the only one in the sport being played at the time.
Charlie Welch had an ear-splitting moment the 11,084 in attendance will never forget — a three-run home run to give Arkansas a comfortable four-run lead one pitch after Christian Franklin scored on a wild pitch to break a 2-2 tie.
But the story of the regional’s final game was the gutsy performance from Kopps, who seemed to get better as the game went deeper into the night. He retired 12 consecutive Nebraska hitters before he hit Cam Chick with a two-strike pitch with two outs in the ninth inning.
Kopps’ efficiency bought him additional innings. The Huskers went down in eight pitches in the sixth inning, 13 pitches in the seventh and 10 pitches in the eighth.
He nearly struck out the side in the ninth. He struck out Luke Roskam looking to begin the inning and took Griffin Everitt down swinging for the second out. Brice Matthews flied out for the final out three pitches after Chick was hit.
“He wouldn’t let us take him out,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He had a quick inning. He comes back in the eighth and we were like, ‘OK, we’re going to take him out,’ and we would probably bring (Patrick) Wicklander in for the ninth. We scored runs and Kevin said, ‘I’m going back out.’ And what an incredible, incredible college pitcher.”
Van Horn said Kopps’ 185-pitch regional reminded him of Charley Boyce’s Herculean effort in 2004, when Boyce threw 203 pitches over two days to help the Razorbacks fight out of the loser’s bracket to beat Wichita State.
“I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve thought about his regional a lot and how I took a little bit of crap for pitching Charley,” Van Horn said. “I’d start walking down to talk to him and he’d point at me and say, ‘I’m not coming out.’ It was almost the same feeling, except Kevin is too polite to say that. He just would tell me, ‘Coach, I feel great.’”
Kopps said he didn’t feel tired Monday night because he didn’t throw many “high-intensity” pitches. He inherited two base runners with no outs in the second inning and limited the damage to one run.
Nebraska's only other scoring chance against him came in the fifth, but the Huskers stranded runners on the corners. Nebraska didn't have another runner for more than an hour.
“I’ve never seen anything like it as long as I've been involved in college baseball, to have a guy that's able to go out there and compete at such a high level in such an environment on this stage and to do it over and over and over,” Nebraska coach Will Bolt said. “There's a reason he's a national pitcher of the year.”
There are more pitcher of the year awards coming for Kopps. He should be a shoo-in for Stopper of the Year, the award that goes to the best reliever in college baseball. Finalists will be announced Wednesday.
By then his name should be at the top of several Howser Trophy ballots, too. Who else could you choose?
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