Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps found new ways to shock the college baseball world every weekend during the 2021 season, so when he took home the Golden Spikes Award on Thursday night, it was anything but a surprise. The award is bestowed annually to the best amateur baseball player in the United States, and Kopps joined Andrew Benintendi in 2015 as the only other Razorback to win it.
“It feels surreal,” Kopps said on ESPN after the announcement. “But, honestly, I still just feel like Kevin. I don’t feel anything different.”
The prestigious award caps off a long list of accolades Kopps picked up in 2021. A unanimous first-team All-American, both Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and D1Baseball named him national player of the year, and he earned Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year over fellow Golden Spikes finalists Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, both top-10 draft picks from Vanderbilt.
Kopps also earned the Dick Howser Trophy, awarded to the national college baseball player of the year. Earlier in the week, he joined the Pro Hogs ranks when he was selected 99th overall in the MLB Draft by the San Diego Padres.
“I think what we’re getting out of it is that instead of starting a guy in low-A, they’re going to start him in high-A or maybe just send him to double-A and see if he can get hitters out,” head coach Dave Van Horn said in a June 23 press conference.
All of Kopps’ awards were widely anticipated. The sixth-year senior from Sugar Land, Texas, dazzled week in and week out, and posted numbers that may not be replicated for a long time. His 0.90 earned runs average was the lowest of any qualified pitcher in 2021, and the lowest of the 16 total pitchers who have won the Golden Spikes. UCLA’s Trevor Bauer set the previous record, 1.25, in 2011.
In 89 ⅔ innings, Kopps struck out 131, nearly 40%, of the 332 hitters he faced. His 12 wins were third in the nation, and in 32 ⅓ fewer innings than first-place Rocker. His 11 saves came second in the country to Evan Justice of the North Carolina State Wolfpack, the team which ended the Hogs’ season in the Fayetteville Super Regional.
Of all pitchers in major conferences, Kopps surrendered the fewest runs by far. He was the only player whose earned runs can be counted on two hands, and three of the nine came in the final game against the Wolfpack, in which he tossed eight innings to earn a quality start in his first start of the season. Tennessee, which also made the College World Series, was the only other team to score multiple runs against him in 2021, and the two runs came in different games.
During the Razorbacks’ series in Columbia, South Carolina, Kopps retired all 15 batters he faced, including 12 on strikes, in two days, earning a save and propelling Arkansas to a series win. In the Fayetteville Regional, he hurled 185 pitches, 13 ⅓ shutout innings and 15 strikeouts, including a seven-inning, eight-strikeout, 90-pitch win in the clinching game, his third appearance in four days. His performances never ceased to spark the Arkansas dugout or the 11,084 spectators at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“You just know whenever he goes in there, we’re going to win,” sophomore second baseman Robert Moore said after the Razorbacks’ May 16 win over Tennessee. “We were down 1-0, he came in in the sixth (inning) and we knew it was over...You have a good feeling you’ve got a chance to win whenever Kevin’s in the game.”
Kopps won the hearts of the Razorback faithful with his in-game heroics during one of the most successful seasons in Arkansas baseball history, but he never received more support than he did in defeat.
After allowing a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning in the last game of the year, Kopps received a standing ovation walking to the Razorback dugout, and after his first loss of the season fans chanted his name long after the Wolfpack’s on-field celebration ended. He stuck around for nearly an hour after the game’s end to take pictures, sign autographs and shake hands with every young fan eager to meet the Razorback icon.
“One of the big things I think about, I think it’s a quote from Michael Jordan, he’s talking about playing as hard as you can every game in case it might be someone’s one and only chance to see you in person,” Kopps said in the final postgame press conference. “Maybe that’s someone’s one and only chance to come watch a game, so I feel like it’s important to give back to the fans because they give so much to us.”