FAYETTEVILLE – Amid Arkansas euphoria over the Razorbacks walloping the North Carolina State Wolfpack, 21-2 last Friday opening the best 2 of 3 Super Regional, Razorbacks sophomore second baseman Robert Moore forecast that Arkansas might pay a price pasting the Wolfpack by too much too soon.
It had nothing to do with revenge.
It had everything to do with baseball. And as the son of Dayton Moore, the Kansas City Royals General Manager, Robert started learning baseball since before he could remember.
Upon Cullen Smith’s grand slam putting Arkansas up, 7-1 in the third inning, veteran Wolfpack Coach Elliott Avent conceded Game One and plotted how to win Game Two and Game Three.
The Wolfpack did, 6-5 and 3-2 last Saturday and Sunday advancing from the 11,084 packed houses at Baum-Walker Stadium to the College World Series in Omaha leaving the Razorbacks to sack the bats ending a magnificent 50-13 SEC championship/SEC Tournament season two 1-run games short of numbering among the Elite Eight competing for the national championship.
After Smith’s grand slam, Avent upon inning’s end pulled under- the weather No. 1 pitcher Reid Johnston (“Reid was not himself, Avent said) and bypassed the next best relief alternatives.
The subsequent six-man pitching parade that Arkansas pounded Friday night never pitched again at Baum-Walker unless it was Saturday or Sunday pregame batting practice like they pitched during Friday night’s game.
“They used a lot of bullpen arms that truthfully weren’t their best guys,” Moore said amid Friday night’s questions prefaced about the Hogs hot hitting. “Tomorrow is going to be a challenge, because tomorrow is going to be their (best) guys. We’ve put ourselves in a good position to win this series, but it is far, far from over. We didn’t get to see their best two left handers.”
Moore’s left-handed compliment proved prophetic.
N.C. State closer Evan Justice beat Arkansas twice. Finishing Saturday’s seventh inning and the game’s remainder on behalf of winning right-handed starter Sam Highfill, Justice was charged with one run during Arkansas’ 3-run seventh and threw a total 48 pitches adding a scoreless eighth and ninth for the save leaving the Hogs, 6-5 short.
On Sunday Avent piece-mealed the Wolfpack to Omaha.
He started with the fresh arms of right-handed starter Matt Willadsen, up 2-1 after four innings, and lefty Chris Villaman, one run allowed pitching the fifth through seventh, and finished with Justice again, Sunday’s winner on his total 23-pitches two perfect innings as N.C. State’s pitcher of record with Jose Torres’ ninth-inning home run deciding the, 3-2 game in the Wolfpack’s favor.
The 3 on 1 pitching plan didn’t beat, but “outlasted,” Avent said of “one of the greatest” pitching performances he had ever seen.
As a college head coach for 33 years Avent has seen plenty.
Arkansas senior reliever Kevin Kopps, the SEC Pitcher of the Year and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper National Player of the Year, impressed that much.
Following either winning or saving all of Arkansas’ three Fayetteville Regional triumphs advancing to Super Regionals, Kopps Saturday threw two scoreless innings of 21-pitch relief keeping the Wolfpack in 6-5 late game reach that Arkansas’ hitters couldn’t catch.
Sunday he started for the first time in 2021 and threw 118 pitches in 90-degree heat.
Kopps held the Wolfpack to seven hits and two runs, a 2-run home run by Jonny Butler, through eight innings before Torres leadoff blast in the ninth.
Sunday’s loss was the lone blemish to Kopps’ 12-1 season with 11 saves and 0.90 earned run average. He added nine strikeouts for a final 131 K’s against 18 walks in 89 2-3 innings.
“Incredible,” Avent said. “He’s absolutely everything that you’ve heard about. Sometimes you don’t get what they describe, but he is everything and then some of what you’ve heard. You don’t really beat a guy like Kevin Kopps. You might outlast him, but I’m not going to say anything about beating Kevin Kopps.”
Torres’ home run ultimately beat Kopps on the record, but like his coach, he couldn’t call Kopps beaten.
“He’s a phenomenal competitor,” Torres said. “A phenomenal pitcher. He’s the best of the best when it comes to college baseball pitching.”
Even the attending contingent of Wolfpack fans, naturally giddy upon seeing their team take a 3-2 top of the ninth lead, joined the Arkansas crowd in the long standing ovation for Kopps as Van Horn brought in Friday night starter Patrick Wicklander to relieve.
Such is baseball that some will second guess Van Horn as leaving Kopps in one batter too long after pitching through a jam stranding two runners in the eighth.
Yet imagine the outcry if a reliever had lost Kopps’ 2-2 game opening the ninth.
Postgame Kopps was asked the conversation between Van Horn, pitching coach Matt Hobbs and him as Arkansas batted in the eighth before he headed to the mound for the ninth.
“It was, ‘You good?” Kopps said adding his reply. “I’m good.’ That was it.”
It was always more than good enough. In fact it was the greatest.