Arkansas senior catcher Casey Opitz pounded his fist into his mitt Friday night in Columbia, South Carolina, as he walked to the mound to congratulate right-handed pitcher Kevin Kopps. The sixth-year senior had just struck out each of the six Gamecock hitters he faced to seal a 5-1 win and a 2-1 series victory.
Kopps put the finishing touches on a pitching clinic that junior lefty Patrick Wicklander began with his longest outing of the season. Wicklander, who was not announced as the starter until after the first game of the doubleheader, hurled seven low-stress innings. He worked around a single, two hit batsmen and a solo home run without walking a single hitter.
The longball cut into the Arkansas lead with the series even at a game apiece, but the Hogs quickly regained momentum. Up 2-1 in the fifth, freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace homered in a two-strike count, stretching the advantage to three runs. The Razorbacks tacked on a fifth run in the seventh inning, making way for Wicklander to bow out with a perfect frame and Kopps to shine for the second consecutive night.
“(We) just pitched ahead in the count all night,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said in the Friday press conference. “We beat a good team and a good pitcher in the most important game of the series.”
The series began Thursday night, and the Arkansas pitching staff made a statement against a powerful Gamecock order with 10 punchouts and only two hits allowed. Junior righty Caleb Bolden earned the starting nod and worked into the fourth inning before surrendering a run. Juniors Ryan Costeiu and Caden Monke teamed up with Kopps to toss 5 ⅔ no-hit frames the rest of the way.
With the score even at one, sophomore second baseman Robert Moore stepped into the batter’s box with the go-ahead run on first base. Moore had laced a solo shot to right in the second inning for the only Arkansas run of the game, but the South Carolina students known as Rowdy Roosters still heckled him relentlessly.
As chants of “Oom-pa Loom-pa!” rained down on him, Moore tattooed a center-cut, 0-2 fastball, admiring it as it sailed even farther over the right field fence than his first one.
“My grandfather’s actually in the hospital right now,” Moore said in Thursday’s press conference. “I knew he was watching the game, and I really wanted to play well, make him smile or something. I had to have a little bit of an edge tonight.”
The Razorback bats continued to generate offense in the late innings, loading the bases in the eighth and ninth frames, ultimately only adding three more runs following Moore’s mammoth homer. The stranded runners did not hurt the Hogs as Kopps carved through the South Carolina batting order, retiring all nine hitters he faced and fanning six of them to pick up a 6-1 win.
The second game started just as strong as the first for the Razorbacks, thanks to an early home run off the bat of senior third baseman Cullen Smith and an especially efficient outing from sophomore pitcher Peyton Pallette. The righty walked a pair and allowed a double, but entered the sixth inning having taken care of seven straight batters.
His marvelous day began to unravel when he walked his third hitter of the game and designated hitter Wes Clarke advanced him to third with a single to beat the shift. Monke threw four balls to the only hitter he faced, loading the bases before turning it over to senior Zebulon Vermillion. Another walk and two singles later, South Carolina led 4-2.
Arkansas managed just four hits in the middle game, each of which came from the bottom of the lineup The Gamecocks scored twice more in the eighth to put the contest out of reach, eventually winning 6-2 to set up a rubber game in the nightcap.
Following the sixth weekend of Southeastern Conference play, the Razorbacks sit alone atop the West Division standings, two games clear of second-place Mississippi State. They are tied with No. 2 Vanderbilt for the conference lead at 13-5 and will remain as the consensus No. 1 team for another week.
The Diamond Hogs were slated to return home for a Tuesday game against Missouri State, but the game was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak within the Bears’ program. Instead, they will be off until Friday, when their three-game road series with the LSU Tigers begins.
“I imagine they’re going to enjoy every minute of this (break),” Van Horn said. “You get a chance to catch up on whatever you need to catch up on, probably watch some ballgames and take care of some business, I think that’s what the players will do.”