FAYETTEVILLE – The College World Series best 2 out of 3 finals for baseball’s national championship begins Monday in Omaha pairing the Mississippi State Bulldogs that SEC champion Arkansas swept in the Razorbacks’ 3-game SEC West series at Starkville, Miss. and the Vanderbilt Commodores of the SEC East that Arkansas defeated en route to winning the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
The Big 12 co-champion Texas Longhorns, playing the last loser’s
bracket game of the CWS losing to Mississippi State, lost to the Razorbacks in the season’s second game back in February at Arlington, Texas.
The progress those teams made getting to Omaha and be the last three team standings could anguish all the more the woulda, coulda, shoulda laments that Coach Dave Van Horn’s then nationally No. 1 ranked Razorbacks no doubt still harbor about their great 50-13 season ended losing 6-5 and 3-2 Super Regional games to the North Carolina State Wolfpack after walloping the Wolfpack 21-2 opening the best 2 of 3 Super Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium determining one of the Elite Eight CWS routes to Omaha.
At least, the Razorbacks lost their opportunity on the field.
Not so the Wolfpack, 2-0 in in Omaha at full strength, battling, despite down to just 13 available players because of covid-19 positive tests and contact, tracing, to losing only 3-1 to once-beaten Vanderbilt and then overnight denied because of covid-19 protocol the opportunity to play Vanderbilt Saturday in what was to be a winner-take all game to advance to the best 2 of 3 finals.
A painfully, abrupt, unfulfilling ending for a resilient, scrappy North Carolina State team. But, we can hope, another national reminder that this covid pandemic isn’t over yet and that for the betterment of all, please get vaccinated unless of course underlying medical conditions dictate otherwise.
While the Hogs of course lament not achieving Omaha as their final 2021 season destination, it’s remarkable how far they went on one of the thinnest pitching rotations that a long-lasting No. 1 team likely ever had.
“What rotation?” Van Horn once replied to what his particular rotation would be.
“We didn’t have three conference starters that we just knew that every time we gave them the ball we had a great opportunity to win,” Van Horn said. “They weren’t settled. We didn’t settle in on anything. It was Patrick Wicklander, and then let’s try this guy and that guy, and then we give the ball to Kevin (Kopps, the Dick Howser Award National Player of the Year relief pitcher) or use (middle relievers Ryan) Costeiu or (Caden) Monke in there a little bit. If you’re really talking about it, we pitched about five guys down the stretch.”
The season-ending injury to right-handed starter-reliever Peyton Pallette cast a late season effect straining Wicklander (7-1, 2.09) and Kopps (12-1, 11 saves, 0.90 earned run average) all the more.
As Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs look to next year, they know that graduate transfer lefty Lael Lockhart, the closest the Hogs had to a No. 2 starter, has completed his eligibility and that Wicklander and Kopps certainly appear headed for July’s Major League draft.
There seems viable hope that second-year man Pallette’s injury wasn’t as severe as first feared.
And hope brightened late season that Connor Noland, a SEC rotation starter in 2019 and 2020, had recovered from early-season injuries and again was pitching to form.
“I think Connor threw really well at the end of the year,” Van Horn said. “We have a lot of confidence in him. He’s staying here this summer, working strength and conditioning, trying to get into really good shape. I expect him to be one of our better guys next year.”
Charlie Welch, a man so far without a position but fascinating as a pinch-hitter/designated hitter with a team leading .388 batting average, seems the player that Van Horn is most asked where he’ll fit next season.
Welch is know to pack a catcher’s mitt, fielder’s glove and first base glove though Razorbacks fan have just seen him hit.
“I think he just has to prove to us where he needs to play,” Van Horn said. “We can definitely see him hitting, obviously, and we are expecting him back. He was an incredible pinch-hitter, a good hitter down the stretch for us. You know we didn’t hit a lot in some games, and Charlie seemed to continue to hit. So we plan on him being right in the middle of things next year.”