A Deeper Look at Arkansas Baseball’s Biggest Struggle in 2021

A thorough postmortem on the 2021 season

Arkansas baseball

The city of Omaha must be bummed.

Legions of Arkansas baseball fans won’t be descending on TD Ameritrade Park, hotels, restaurants and bars after this past weekend’s heartbreaking 3-2 loss to the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Despite a dazzling effort by the remarkable Kevin Kopps, the Hogs couldn’t muster enough offense and lost their first weekend series of the season: an amazing statistic in itself.

Coupled with incredibly poor timing. 

A tip of the hat to the Wolfpack. They brought a SEC-caliber lineup to Baum Stadium this weekend and got better than expected pitching to tip the series in their favor.

The old proverb “Live by the sword, die by the sword” applies as the nation’s leading home run hitting team got out-slugged in the series, including the dagger by shortstop Jose Torres in the 8th inning against Kopps. The dinger was Torres’ third of the series and came on an 0-2 count.

Just a great piece of clutch hitting in a huge moment. Credit where credit is due. 

Kevin Kopps was simply brilliant. That guy pitched 10+ innings over two days against a hot, intimidating Wolfpack lineup and made about 4-5 mistakes in nearly 140 pitches.

Unfortunately, two of them left the yard.

The phrase “gutty performance for the ages” doesn’t do his effort justice. An incredible, maybe once-in-a-lifetime type season where he wholeheartedly deserves every single accolade and honor — including, hopefully, the Golden Spikes Award — that comes his way. 

Arkansas’ defense had been stellar all season and the super regional was no exception. They committed no errors in Game 3.

I do wonder why Matt Goodheart didn’t play in the outfield sooner as he looked capable out there the last two weekends. His ability to play outfield would have allowed Charlie Welch many more at bats as the designated hitter this season.

Perhaps the shoulder that’s given Goodheart so much trouble over two-plus seasons finally felt good enough for him give it a go in the outfield.

Arkansas Baseball’s Biggest Struggle

The glaring scapegoat in the series loss and recent struggles was the offense. Throw out the 21-2 laugher on Friday and the offensive numbers fall well below what produces winning baseball.

Shockingly, against two freshman starters, a freshman reliever and twice against Evan Justice, NC State’s quirky but effective closer, the Hog bats went a wimpish 8-64 in games two and three.

Not many teams, even with remarkable pitching, can win when batting .125.

Sure, there were some obvious struggles with hitting by some star Arkansas baseball players — but those kids are probably having a hard enough time processing what happened to their dream season without having it pinpointed in this column.

The Wolfpack either had a brilliant plan on how to pitch to Arkansas’ lethal lineup or the Razorback hitters had a painfully stubborn approach. The reality is a little bit of both factored into the uncharacteristic lack of offensive production over the weekend.

Especially in Game 3, where NC State’s starter threw off speed pitch after off speed pitch and Hog hitters continued to try to yank everything to the pull side. Often hitting into the shift or being out in front lofting pop ups for easy outs. NC State then was able to offset the crafty righthanders with electric stuff out of two left-handed relievers. 

Tip of the cap to the NC State staff for having a game plan and the players being to execute to near-perfection.

Hitting’s hard.

During my career as an Arkansas baseball player, I wasn’t a hitter (not even a very good one in high school) but spent over 270 college innings trying to get them out with less than dominating stuff. Not being able to get by on stuff alone, I invested a lot of effort into understanding what a hitter is thinking and/or trying to do. 

When a pitcher, regardless of velocity, has two pitches working, he can typically keep a lineup off balance 1-2 times through a lineup. When he has three or four pitches that are on that day, hitters can expect to be dominated.

There will be no rhyme or reason to sequence, location and the batter seems to be behind 0-2, 1-2 a lot. Hitters become confused, begin pressing and that is how a slump starts. Hitters fall into the trap(s) set by the pitcher and don’t have the same leverage as they do in hitter friendly counts like 2-0, 3-1.

Everyone likes to hit fastballs, regardless of velocity, when the offensive player knows that is what they will get.

Unfortunately for the Hogs, NC State was able to force Arkansas’ offense into soft contact or swing and miss by mixing and matching pitches and making some big pitches in a few clutch spots.

The guys they ran out there hadn’t done it consistently all season, and so had high ERAs. But to their credit, the Wolfpack’s pitching after Game 1 was outstanding. Last weekend, it was painfully obvious some Hog hitters were in a bad place mentally with their offensive approach and confidence. 

The Outsized Role of Pitching

In football, Alabama can line up against an opponent they are supposed to beat and just wear them out game after game. They can send the same 11 dudes out there to start every game, on each side of the ball, and just exert their will on the opponent.

Yes, upsets happen but they are but rare. Basketball is similar. The starting lineup and a few key reserves play every game with the same skill set.

Baseball, meanwhile, is much harder to predict because the pitcher is such a unique variable game to game and within the game.

Different arm slots, different shape to pitches, varying velocities and movement affect the comfort of a hitter. When hitters are comfortable, they mash like we saw in Game 1. When the pitcher has an arsenal working, he might as well be able to pull Jedi mind tricks on the hitters. Especially those in a funk.

Kevin Kopps’ Last Game

Dave Van Horn made the right call in starting Kevin Kopps on the do-or-die Game 3.

If I had the best pitcher in the country at my disposal and he was ready to give me starter-type innings, then without question I run him out there from the get go. You’d think Kopps will be better than the opponent’s starter and the Hogs could score enough runs to make the back portion of the game meaningless.

Get off to a good, maybe great, start and then run away with the game. The game plan was solid — execution not so much as the offense never clicked.

When Torres hit that decisive homer in the ninth, it wasn’t because Kopps ran out of gas.

He’d been typical Kevin Kopps the innings leading up to that spot and was up 0-2 on the red-hot Torres. Kopps missed his spot (one of those 4-5 mistakes out of 140 pitches) trying to bury his put away pitch and the Wolfpack shortstop made him pay. That’s what clutch hitting is all about.

An inch of movement this way or that way on that pitch and he swings and misses or weakly taps the ball to a fielder. Such is baseball. 

Such a remarkable season ending on that pitch and subsequent result is really tough. He obviously deserved a much better fate. Despite giving up that home run, he will go down as one of the Razorback greats, regardless of sport. A remarkable pitcher that overcame a sackful of adversity and handled the heartbreak of Sunday with class.

That shone even more when Kevin Kopps stuck around after the game for over an hour humbly signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. 

Arkansas Baseball: Looking Ahead

I’m sure the loss was equally difficult for other great Arkansas baseball players like Casey Opitz, Patrick Wicklander, Matt Goodheart and Christian Franklin — all of whom likely suited up for the last time at Baum Stadium.

This was the first team to win 50 games (against the number one strength of schedule in the country) in the successful Van Horn era and the first Razorback team to do it since Coach Norm DeBriyn’s 1989 Omaha squad. 

An outright SEC championship and DVH’s first SEC tournament title were no fluke. An excellent defensive team that hammered the long ball like no other Razorback team ever. Pitching was solid and typically dependable the entire season.

The team battled a lot of adversity as well with injuries, highly ranked opponents on the road and weather that forced more than typical double headers. No excuses. They just kept plugging along.

Reflecting on the promise of what could have been and how it ended is tough. Not being in Omaha this weekend will be somber. But there is no reason to think the Razorbacks won’t be back in this position again. Soon. Very soon. 

Fortunately, a nice nucleus should return to the Hill for 2022, complimented with the number three recruiting class in the country. Dave Van Horn keeps reeling in the talent and the right kind of players for his program to the point where playing at TD Ameritrade in late June becomes the expectation not the hope.

Omaha wasn’t in the cards for 2021 but, rest assured, the Hogs and our incredible baseball fan base will all be back soon. #WPS 


A nice trip down memory lane:


Feature image via Baumology (Rhett Hutchins)


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