Though he fell short of complete dominance Saturday night, Arkansas senior right-handed pitcher Kevin Kopps was still too much for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year tossed four shutout innings to seal a 5-1 win for the Razorbacks and punch their ticket to the Fayetteville Regional Final.
Kopps took over for junior lefty Patrick Wicklander, who hurled five scoreless innings to begin the game. With Wicklander’s pitch count upwards of 90, the Hogs turned to Kopps after a leadoff single in the sixth.
“That’s exactly what we were planning on doing tonight,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said in the postgame press conference. “Five, maybe six (innings) with Wicklander we were hoping (for), but we didn’t get the sixth and let Kopps take it to the house. You’ve got to feel good about it, rest everybody else and tomorrow we’ll see who we’re playing and then go from there.”
After Wicklander set the tone with a scoreless first inning, senior right fielder Matt Goodheart vaulted the Razorbacks into the lead with a home run into the Hog Pen to lead off the home half. The opposite-field shot moved Goodheart into a five-way tie for the team lead in home runs with 13, and set the program record for home runs in a single season at 99.
“He gave me a fastball and that’s usually the pitch a lot of us are trying to attack, especially early in the game,” Goodheart said. “It’s nice to jump out ahead, it’s always nice to score runs regardless of the situation.”
The Hogs moved the line in the second inning with two hits and two walks, building the lead to three runs. Senior left fielder Braydon Webb picked up his fourth RBI of the tournament with a single to left field, and freshman third baseman Cayden Wallace hit a sacrifice fly to do the same and build the Razorback lead to three runs.
The Cornhuskers managed to plate a run in the sixth inning after chasing Wicklander and scratching out a rare hit against Kopps, but the Nebraska bullpen collapsed in the bottom half of the frame. After junior shortstop Jalen Battles reached on a throwing error by the shortstop, the Razorbacks went on a carousel around the bases, drawing four consecutive walks to add two more runs and extend the lead to 5-1.
“That was huge,” Van Horn said. “To get the one run on the bases-loaded walk was big-time. We matched the run that they got there in the top of the sixth, and we scored another run on a passed ball. The hitters did a good job — they were very patient.”
Kopps surrendered two more hits, one in each of the next two innings, but Nebraska was unable to tighten the score. Across four innings, Kopps recorded six strikeouts and six groundouts on 71 pitches, bringing his shutout innings count to 6 ⅓ for the tournament.
“Obviously no one wants a quick hook, but having Kevin be back in the bullpen makes things a little bit easier,” Wicklander said.
The Diamond Hogs, having won each of the two games they have played, await their opponent from the losers’ bracket. Nebraska and the NJIT Highlanders, who took down Northeastern on Saturday, will square off at 2 p.m. Sunday to stay alive and face Arkansas at 8 p.m.
If the Razorbacks win, they will advance to the Fayetteville Super Regional next weekend. If they lose, they will have another opportunity to do so at 6 p.m. Monday.
“(Arkansas’ situation is) better than being 1-1 and having to win three straight,” Van Horn said. “We didn’t play very [well] tonight. We won, I feel fortunate, [and] I’m looking forward to getting back out on the field.”