FAYETTEVILLE – Thanks to the incredible iron arm of Kevin Kopps and three Arkansas home runs by Casey Opitz, Robert Moore and Charlie Welch plus errorless defense, the Razorbacks overcame the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 6-2 in Monday night’s winner take all Fayetteville Regional championship game before another 11,084 sellout crowd at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Monday’s triumph advances Coach Dave Van Horn’s 49-11 nationally No. 1 SEC champion Razorbacks to hosting Ruston (La.) Regional winner North Carolina State with the winner advancing among the Elite Eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
Coach Will Bolt’s Big Ten champion Cornhuskers finish their season 39-14.
Senior right-handed reliever Kopps, winning Friday’s come from behind 13-8 first round game over the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders throwing 21 pitches from the fourth through the sixth innings, and then Saturday throwing 71 pitches from the sixth through ninth saving Patrick Wicklander’s 5-1 winner’s bracket win over Nebraska, relieved with two on and nobody out in Monday’s third and finished with seven scoreless innings with three hits and no walks against eight strikeouts.
The only game that Kopps wasn’t used, Sunday’s first championship game, the Hogs lost 5-3 to Nebraska.
Named Fayetteville Regional MVP, Kopps for three appearances logged two wins and a save in 13 1-3 scoreless innings.
“Incredible!” Van Horn said. “What a clutch performance by Kevin Kopps. I felt like he got better as the game went on. Coach (pitching coach Matt Hobbs) would talk to him pretty much every inning, (about taking him out). . We thought we’d let him go to the seventh. He wouldn’t let us take him out. 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 Wicklander in for the ninth. We scored runs and Kevin said, ‘I’m going back out.’ And what an incredible, incredible college pitcher.”
Will Bolt was equally incredulous.
“I’ve never seen anything like it as long as I’ve been involved in college baseball,” Bolt said. “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. There’s a reason he’s a National Pitcher of the Year. He was incredible today.”
Kopps apparently felt incredibly good, his rejoinder each inning that Van Horn and Hobbs asked if he was ready to be relieved.
“They just asked me ‘How I’m feeling? And I’d say, ‘Yep, I do feel good,” Kopps said. “The more I throw the better. That’s usually what happens if you look at my outings. Looking at my Trackman reports: I usually start getting better the more I throw.”
Freshman starter Jaxon Wiggins had yielded a leadoff home run in the second to Luke Roskam and walked 8 and 9 hitters Mojo Hagge and Logan Foster leading off the third when Van Horn summoned Kopps. Joe Acker bunted the runners over. Jaxon Hallmark’ grounder to short scores Hagge.
Arkansas center fielder Christian Franklin, whose Willie Mays worthy catch saved Kopps from yielding a 2-run double or triple the first batter he faced relieving Friday against NJIT, made another nice diving catch of Spencer Schwellenbach’s liner ending stranding Foster at third.
“He’s so good, you just kind of expect him to make those,” Kopps said. “But I definitely owe him a steak dinner or something.
The Cornhuskers never reached third base again.
Mustering but five hits when beating Nebraska Saturday and only four, all singles, losing to Nebraska Sunday, Arkansas had one hit, a walk and no runs off Cornhuskers lefty starter Cade Povich until Opitz homered over left leading off the fifth.
Cam Wynne relieved Povich for the inning’s final two outs but in the sixth got tagged for Robert Moore’s home run tying it 2-2.
Nebraska reliever Koty Frank retired the first two Razorbacks and had a struggling Franklin, four strikeouts in four at bats.
Franklin fouled off five pitches and walked on the at bat’s 10th pitch.
“Christian Franklin had been struggling,” Van Horn said. “But that at bat, that got it going.”
Apparently unnerved, Frank walked Moore on four pitches and fell 2-0 behind Opitz.
Bolt summoned reliever Jake Bunz though Bunz struggled with control in a Saturday appearance against Arkansas. He threw two balls to Opitz walking the bases loaded.
Van Horn pinch-hit Welch for Cullen Smith, a big hitter helping Arkansas win the SEC Tournament but struggling in the Regional.
Bunz uncorked a 2-0 wild pitch scoring Franklin with the go-ahead. Welch creamed the next pitch over left for the put the game away 3-run home run.
“I thought since they had thrown 11 balls in a row that Coach Van Horn was going to give me the take sign,” Welch said. “So I looked at him and he gave me the green light and I got what I was looking for, a fastball down the middle. So I hit pretty well.”
Arkansas’ coach since 2003, Van Horn said he never heard Baum-Walker so loud as on Welch’s clout.
“It’s so loud your helmet is trembling,” Welch said of his home run tour. “I’ve never experienced that. It was surreal.”
More noise opportunities arrive once the North Carolina State Wolfpack hit town for the Fayetteville Super Regional.