Nate Allen on Arkansas vs. Florida Thursday night gamer
FAYETTEVILLE – On Patrick Wicklander and Kevin Kopps’ pitching and Cayden Wallace and Casey Opitz’ hitting the Arkansas Razorbacks Thursday night clinched finishing the SEC baseball regular season at the least tied for best in the SEC West and have the inside track at winning outright the SEC Overall and West baseball championships.
At Baum-Walker Stadium Thursday night Coach Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks opened their final 3-game SEC series flogging Florida, 6-1. Thursday’s triumph upped nationally No. 1 Arkansas to 40-10 overall and 20-8 in the SEC holding a 2-game edge over 18-10 West runner-up Mississippi State and a 1-game SEC Overall championship lead on 19-9 SEC East leader Tennessee.
All SEC teams play Friday, Arkansas at 7 p.m. on the SEC Network, and conclude Saturday.
Arkansas and Coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s Florida Gators, 35-17 overall and 17-11 third in the SEC East, meet at 2 p.m. Saturday leading into next week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
Starting lefty Wicklander throwing six complete innings upped his record 5-1. He handed a 3-1 starting the seventh-inning lead to senior ace reliever Kopps, 9-0 after winning two at Tennessee last weekend and now with eight saves. Kopps finished with three scoreless, hitless innings Thursday night while striking out five against one walk.
Senior catcher Opitz caught flawlessly while calling what Wicklander and Kopps threw plus swung a big stick. Opitz went 3 for 4 with two RBI. His first the fourth inning single tallying Christian Franklin, tied it 1-1 countering the second-inning solo home run that Florida first baseman Kendrick Caliao swatted as one of Florida’s three hits off Wicklander.
Freshman right fielder Wallace of Greenbrier went 3 for 4 with two home runs and four RBI. His solo home run down the right field line in the 2-run fifth followed by Opitz’s second RBI single off losing Gators starter Tommy Mace, 5-1, first put Arkansas ahead.
Wallace’s 2-out 3-run home run down the left field line in the eighth
off reliever Christian Scott after Braydon Webb’s double and Matt Goodheart’s walk put the preseason nationally No. 1 now nationally eighth in the Coaches poll Gators, a doomed down five with Kopps throwing a 1-2-3 ninth.
Wallace has starred throughout this season but with covid-19 attendance restrictions, lifted, played before a Baum Stadium capacity 11,000-plus for the first time as he helped Arkansas win the West.
“It’s a dream come true,” Wallace said during Thursday’s postgame. “I knew this team was something special from the beginning and I always knew we could do this and we’re not done yet.”
He knows the fans aren’t done coming this weekend or at the Regional the No. 1 Hogs seem destined to host.
“It was awesome,” Wallace said. “I’ve experienced that in the stands (as a Razorbacks fan) before but I never got to on the field. That’s what I’ve been dreaming of since I got on campus, playing for a crowd like this and it was electric tonight. We just want to do it for the fans and they were great to us and we want to be great back. Hopefully it will be fully packed the next two games and we’ll keep doing the same thing.”
A full Baum-Walker was like old times to Wicklander, in Arkansas’ SEC starting rotation as a freshman on the 2019 College World Series team.
“It felt like a Regional,” Wicklander said. “And tomorrow night there will be even more people coming out.”
Thursday’s success, Van Horn said, started with Wicklander who lasted 2 2-3 innings in last week’s start at Tennessee and trailed 5-0 after the first inning in Knoxville.
“”It was big for him, and it was big for us,” Van Horn said of Wicklander’s comeback from his Tennessee tumble. “It was big for our bullpen for him to hold them down.”
With no middle relief bridge required, Kopps topped off Wicklander’s strong start with a nearly perfectly efficient finish that should leave him ready to face the Gators again this weekend.
“Three innings, 39 pitches, outstanding,” Van Horn said. “I would say he’s available.”
And that Opitz and Wallace swung it Arkansas’ way.
“Obviously, the base hit by Opitz to tie it with two outs was huge because we had already left some runners out there,” Van Horn said. “Super big hit by Wallace going to give us the lead. Another big hit by Opitz to give us a two-run lead. And that eighth inning (with Wallace’s 3-run home run after opening outs) happened real fast. He stepped it up for us tonight.”