Hogs Take Tennessee

Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE – Thanks to incomparable reliever Kevin Kopps winning Friday and Sunday, Arkansas’ Comeback Kids won 2 of their 3 comebacks in their 3-game SEC series at Tennessee.

Coach Dave Van Horn’s nationally No. 1 Razorbacks, down 5-0 to former Arkansas assistant coach Tony Vitello’s nationally No. 4 Volunteers in Friday night’s first inning but rallying to win 6-5, and down 3-0 Saturday before rallying to lead, 7-5 only to lose an 8-7 heartbreaker on Max Ferguson’s ninth-inning 3-run home run, rallied from down 1-0 to win 3-2 Sunday.

The Razorbacks departed the Vols’ Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. 39-10 overall and 19-8 in the SEC. By two games they stand best in the SEC West over 17-10 Mississippi State and respectively one game and one game and a half ahead of SEC East leaders Tennessee, 18-9, and Vanderbilt, 17-9, for the SEC Overall regular season championship.

“Today’s game was exactly what I thought it would be,” Van Horn said Sunday of the Hogs and Vols finishing a third consecutive down to the wire game. “It was a great series. We came with an eyelash of sweeping the thing and we could have been swept.”

The SEC regular season concludes Thursday through Saturday for all 14 teams with Arkansas hosting preseason top-ranked Florida at Baum-Walker Stadium at 6 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday.

Kopps won Friday night’s game pitching 66 pitches the final three scoreless innings. Rested Saturday, with Tennessee’s Ferguson hitting the ninth-inning 3-run home run off early-season closer Jaxon Wiggins, Kopps and his rubber right arm returned in Sunday’s sixth inning inheriting from reliever Zebulon Vermillion a 1-0 deficits and runners at first and second with one out. Kopps retired Jordan Beck (fly out) and Kyle Booker (strikeout).

He pitched a 1-2-3 eighth before proven slightly human in the ninth. The senior’s string of 27 scoreless innings was snapped by Connor Pavolony’s 2-out single tallying Luc Lipcius who had doubled leading off.

On his 59th pitch Sunday and 125th since Friday, Kopps preserved his 3-2 victory retiring Liam Spence on a fly to right.

‘Amazing,” Van Horn said postgame Sunday. “He had better stuff today than he did the other day.”

Exiting scoreless Sunday in 4 1-3 innings, left-hander Lael Lockhart provided Arkansas the solid third-game start it has recently lacked though one of the two runners he left on fifth-inning singles did score. Caden Monke, extremely effective Friday bridging 3 1-3 scoreless innings between struggling starter Patrick Wicklander and Kopps, couldn’t bounce back Sunday. Van Horn pulled him for Vermillion after one batter, a 4-pitch bases-loading walk. Ferguson’s grounder to short scored the run.

Against Tennessee starter Blade Tidwell, a hard-luck loser allowing just two hits pitching into the eighth-inning, Arkansas tied it 1-1 on Robert Moore’s sacrifice fly. Moore’s fly-out tallied Christian Franklin who had walked and been doubled to third by Brady Slavens.

Tidwell was pulled for reliever Sean Hunley after walking Casey Opitz leading off the eighth. Zack Gregory doubled home Opitz, sac-bunted to second by Jalen Battles, for the go-ahead run.

Slavens and Moore, Friday night heroes each with a home run and a combined combined five RBI in the 6-5 victory, added Sunday’s ninth inning to their hitting heroics. Slavens singled and advanced on Franklin’s groundout to score on Moore’s single offsetting what the Vols finally netted off Kopps.

Good friends Van Horn and Vitello, Vitello served Van Horn as Arkansas’ hitting coach/recruiting coordinator from 2014-2017 and as former Razorbacks outfielder Luke Bonfield and former Razorbacks graduate assistant Josh Elander on his Tennessee staff, waged a since patched up testy postgame exchange.

“He had some things to say, thought we did a good job and was an excellent series and all that,” Vitello said postgame. “Probably poor timing on my choice, but brought up some off-the-field stuff that really is not a big issue.”

Van Horn similarly downplayed it.

““First off, Tony’s a really good guy and he’s a really good coach,” Van Horn said. “It (the postgame exchange) could have been something that was going on during the game, could have been about recruiting, could be about a lot of things — probably pick one of all or all three. That’s between me and Tony.”

Saturday’s game featured some excellent Razorbacks relief work by Caleb Bolden and Ryan Costeiu after starter Peyton Pallette of Benton was removed during the fourth inning trailing 3-0.

Arkansas behind home runs by Braydon Webb and Franklin rallied to take a 7-5 lead.

Wiggins, effective in a 2-inning last Tuesday start against Arkansas State and the early-season closer before Kopps’ became his own setup man relieving from the sixth inning on, was touched for a bloop hit entering the ninth and a walk before Ferguson homered Saturday for the second time.

Asked after Saturday’s heartbreaker how they would respond Sunday, Van Horn replied, “How do I think they’re going to respond? I think they’re going to be fine.”

Kopps and the Comeback Kids proved him a prophet.

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