FAYETTEVILLE – For Arkansas, it’s been Wicklander and Kopps combining as tops throughout the Razorbacks’ SEC championship season.
The combo postseason peaked again in Saturday night’s 5-1 victory over Big Ten champion Nebraska in the Fayetteville Regional winner’s bracket before a sold-out 11,084 at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Junior left-hander starter Patrick Wicklander, now 6-1, logged the victory throwing a 2-hit shutout through Nebraska leadoff man Joe Acker singling to start the sixth inning.
Senior reliever Kevin Kopps, the SEC Pitcher of the Year and registering Friday’s 13-8come from behind first round victory over the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders throwing 24 pitches from the fourth though six innings, replaced Wicklander up 3-0 in Saturday’s sixth and nobody out while inheriting Acker at first.
Acker advanced on an infield out and scored on Luke Roskam’s single.
That’s all the Cornhuskers would score for the remainder of Kopps’ 71 pitches. The Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s National Player of the Year, 11-0 after Friday’s victory over NJIT, Saturday recorded his 11th.
The 48-10 Razorbacks advance to Sunday’s 8 p.m. championship game against Sunday aftrernoon’s loser’s bracket game winner between Nebraska and NJIT.
NJIT was a 3-2 loser’s bracket winner Saturday over Northeastern, an 8-6 first-round loser to Nebraska on Friday night.
Win Sunday night and the Razorbacks advance to host the winner of the Ruston (La.) Regional in a best 2 of 3 Super Regional determining one of the Elite Eight that will play for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
Should the Razorbacks lose Sunday, a winner take all championship game would be played Monday at Baum-Walker.
Seizing Sunday’s driver’s seat made Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn without hesitation Saturday summon Kopps when Acker singled on Wicklander’s 92nd pitch of the night.
“ He (Wicklander) did a really nice job but they got his pitch count up,” Van Horn said. “We thought well, just make the move now. “It was the top of the order, think the two-hole hitter was coming up. So went to Kevin and he did a tremendous job as usual.
Did he cringe as Kopps followed 24 pitches Friday with an 71 on Saturday?
“Not at all,” Van Horn said. “That’s what he does.”
Wicklander knows it from the quick hook he got after the sixth-inning leadoff single.
“Obviously no one wants a quick hook, but having Kevin back in the bullpen makes it a little bit easier,” Wicklander said.
So does the not only errorless but precision take away hits defense the Hogs played Saturday.
“I thought we played really good defense,” Van Horn said. “We’re just solid.”
Arkansas whacked 13 hits including five home runs Friday against NJIT.
Six Nebraska pitchers Saturday held the Hogs to just five hits.
However the first set tone. Having to rally from down 3-0 to overcome NJIT Friday, the Razorbacks set a get-ahead tone Saturday with their first batter. Senior Matt Goodheart led off Arkansas’ first inning against losing starter Chance Hroch with an opposite field home run to left-center, his 13th tying Brady Slavens, Christian Franklin, Robert Moore and Greenbrier’s Cayden Wallace for the team lead, and a school record-setting 99th home run as a team.
“Giving us the lead was big because obviously we didn’t have the lead yesterday until about the fourth, fifth inning,” Van Horn said. “The crowd was really loud when he hit it and it got them fired up. It was a big swing for us.”
Arkansas added two off Hroch in the second, set up by Charlie Welch’s lead off single and Jalen Battles’ 1-out walk.
No. 9 hitting left fielder Braydon Webb, hitting a 2-run home run Friday for Arkansas’ first two runs against NJIT, singled home Welch in Saturday’s second inning. Goodheart’s walk loaded the bases for Wallace’s sacrifice fly.
Nebraska reliever Emmett Olson was victimized for two sixth-inning runs that Arkansas scored without a hit.
Battles led off reaching on a throwing error. Wallace walked with one out. It was among 10 Arkansas walks for the game and four in the sixth inning including three consecutive by heretofore effective reliever Jake Bunz, 1.95. Bunz’s bases loaded walk to Franklin scored one run. A passed ball scored the other.
For Van Horn it was a victory against the school he coached from 1998-2002 and against the coach, Will Bolt, who was a 4-year letterman Nebraska infielder for Van Horn and captained Van Horn’s last two Cornhuskers teams.
Bolt said his Cornhuskers battled with repeated full counts upping the Arkansas pitch count.
“Wicklander’s pitch count got up on him a little bit because we had some extended at-bats,” Bolt said. “Same thing with Kopps. We were 3 and 2 a ton on him, but he made pitches. That’s why he’s one of the best in the country.”