A week full of all-around dominance concluded Sunday for the top-ranked Razorback baseball team with big smiles and raised arms hoisting the Southeastern Conference Tournament trophy for the first time in program history. Arkansas became the third No. 1 seed to win the SEC Tournament, joining LSU in 2009 and Vanderbilt in 2019, both of which went on to win the College World Series those years.
“For the guys to come out after we had already won the regular season championship and play like they did here — it’s just their makeup, it’s their DNA. They just show up and they get after it,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said after Sunday’s win.
Arkansas began its conference conquest with an 11-2 thrashing of the Georgia Bulldogs on Wednesday afternoon. The Bulldogs issued 14 walks and committed three errors, gifting the Razorbacks with run after run as senior left-handed pitcher Lael Lockhart nearly perfected Georgia.
With a 10-0 lead in the seventh inning, the Hogs were one out away from securing a run-rule victory. Lockhart, who retired the first 20 hitters he faced, surrendered an infield single and a two-run homer. Despite the spoiled perfect game, he fanned a season-high 11 Bulldogs and walked none.
“I think this is right up there if not the best (game of my career) just because of everything that was on the line leading up to it,” Lockhart said Wednesday. “I don’t think I’ve ever been close to anything like a no-hitter, a perfect game, in my career going back to high school, travel ball, summer ball whatever it is. It was fun.”
Even with a big victory to open the week, Arkansas had to continue without the services of junior first baseman Brady Slavens, the team leader in RBIs. Slavens suffered a lateral ankle sprain after running full speed and slipping on first base in the second inning, and he is expected to be out of commission for 1-3 weeks.
The second contest came Thursday night against the No. 3 Vanderbilt Commodores in one of the most highly anticipated games of the season. Junior lefty Patrick Wicklander and righty Kumar Rocker of Vanderbilt faced off on the mound in a matchup of dueling aces, but neither pitcher made it out of the fourth inning.
The Commodores tagged Wicklander for three runs and Rocker allowed five, setting him up for his third loss of the season. Both teams traded runs in the fifth, and with a 6-4 advantage in jeopardy in the seventh, the Hogs turned to senior righty Kevin Kopps to protect it. The SEC Pitcher of the Year recorded nine outs against nine hitters, including five on strikes, in just 30 pitches to seal the victory.
With a 2-0 record, the Razorbacks were off Friday before a semifinal matchup against Ole Miss on Saturday. Junior righty Caleb Bolden gave Arkansas four scoreless innings in his fourth SEC start of the year. Senior Cullen Smith launched a two-run bomb in the first inning, and junior shortstop Jalen Battles doubled to score the go-ahead run with two outs in the sixth.
Junior righty Connor Noland did his best Kopps impression, with three lockdown innings to put a bow on a 3-2 win and set up the SEC Championship Game against the Tennessee Volunteers.
“It felt awesome. Obviously it’s a different role than I’m used to,” Noland said after the Ole Miss game. “But, I’ve been watching (Kopps) all year, so he kind of gave me some inspiration and it was good to get out there and finish it out.”
Consistent with the squads’ three-game series two weeks earlier, Tennessee struck first against freshman righty Jaxon Wiggins. The Razorbacks had no answers for lefty Will Heflin, who they struggled against through five innings last time, until the fifth inning, when the bottom of the order strung a walk and three hits together to take a 3-1 lead.
Battles, who was named Tournament MVP, extended the lead in the seventh with his second homer in SEC play, a solo shot to make it 4-2. After shutout relief appearances from junior righty Ryan Costeiu and Lockhart, Kopps got the call to finish the Volunteers off.
Kopps’ outing began with a solo home run, raising his ERA to 0.85 and cutting the lead to two runs, but the Arkansas bats had his back. Sophomore second baseman Robert Moore knocked in a run with a fielder’s choice, and Smith mashed his team-high third homer of the week, a two-out laser that put the Hogs up 7-2.
Kopps worked a six-pitch eighth inning and worked around a two-out hit in the ninth to close Tennessee out and establish conference superiority.
“I would say (Kopps’) stuff was probably up and down today,” Van Horn said. “But, hey, it’s still better than a lot of guys when they’re as good as they can be.”
The Razorbacks have won eight consecutive games entering the NCAA Tournament. They are the No. 1 overall seed, and they will host the Fayetteville Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium next weekend. Arkansas will take on the New Jersey Institute of Technology at 2 p.m. Friday.
“I really like the way the team reacted today after they won the championship,” Van Horn said. “They were happy and excited just like the coaches, but they didn’t go crazy. They know we still have work to do. There’s going to be some good teams that we are going to have to handle if we want to advance, because nothing is promised. You’ve got to go take it.”