With 114 pitches to his name after eight innings Sunday night, Arkansas senior right-handed pitcher Kevin Kopps returned to the mound during a 2-2 game. Ahead 1-2 in the count to North Carolina State shortstop Jose Torres, Kopps hung a cutter and Torres did not miss it. The ball sailed into the Hog Pen, giving the Wolfpack a 3-2 lead it did not surrender, eliminating the No. 1 Razorbacks.
Early on, Kevin Kopps the starter did not match Kevin Kopps the reliever. In his first start of 2021, his pitch count rose quickly and he allowed multiple runs in a game for the first time all season. Still, the Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year earned a quality start, tossing eight innings to go with his three earned runs, seven hits and two walks allowed.
“(Pitching) Coach (Matt) Hobbs asked me if I want to start,” Kopps said in the postgame press conference. “He said I’ve earned the right to tell him yes or no. My career and my teammates’ careers were on the line, and of course I wanted the ball.”
The problem for the Razorbacks was not that Kopps was hittable, it was their inability to string hits together. For the second consecutive game, they registered only four hits. No inning featured more than one.
“We just couldn’t get that big hit to put us over the top, really the last couple of days,” head coach Dave Van Horn said.
Arkansas junior designated hitter Charlie Welch drove in the first run of the game on a two-out, opposite-field double. It was his fourth extra-base hit of the Fayetteville Super Regional, but it was the team’s only hit of the day with a runner on base.
The Wolfpack took the lead in the third inning, cashing in on a walk with a two-run home run by left fielder Jonny Butler. Designated hitter Terrell Tatum followed with a single, after which Kopps settled down to record 16 outs against the next 18 batters.
The middle innings were uneventful as neither team managed to get a runner past second base. After four innings and 84 pitches, the Wolfpack opted to turn from righty Matt Willadsen to lefty Chris Villaman, who looked unhittable for a while. Freshman left fielder Cayden Wallace put that narrative to rest with a two-out solo home run into the Hog Pen to tie the score at two apiece.
North Carolina State went back to lefty Evan Justice, who threw 48 pitches Saturday, for the eighth inning. Just as he did in the second game, he sat down all six batters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings, punching the Wolfpack’s ticket to Omaha, Nebraska, and knocking out the heavily favored Razorbacks.
“We had a good year,” Van Horn said. “We won a couple of championships, and it was a fun team to be around.”
Arkansas finished the year 50-13, having won every single series during the regular season. The Razorbacks won their first Southeastern Conference regular-season championship since 2004, and their first SEC Tournament championship ever. It is the first time the Hogs have lost a super regional since 2010, and they suffered the same fate as the 2013 Vanderbilt Commodores, the only other team to go undefeated in SEC series.
“We’ve just got a bunch of good players that played hard,” Van Horn added to the list of accolades the Razorbacks achieved this season. “Those are the things that’ll stand out to me when I take a little time to really think about it.”