On Friday night, the No. 16 NC State Wolfpack were embarrassed by No. 1 seed Arkansas baseball team to begin the Super Regional round in Fayetteville.
Arkansas smashed four home runs to take Game 1 by the score of 21-2.
“I don’t think it was an embarrassing loss,” NC State coach Elliott Avent said afterward.
“Obviously, the score was lopsided. But when you’re [still] playing with 240 teams sent home, there’s nothing embarrassing about that.”
On Saturday afternoon, NC State returned the favor, hitting three homers in what proved to be a pivotal fourth inning to go up 5-2. Although Arkansas made a push to close the gap in the seventh inning, NC State ultimately held on to win 6-5.
This sets up a do-or-die Game 3 at 5 p.m. today in which Arkansas’ extraordinary relief pitcher Kevin Kopps will make his first start of the season (more on that below).
“This is the most impressive group I think I’ve ever had,” Avent said.
“This team, they understand who they are. Yesterday, nobody wants to get beat by that margin, but they knew how we got to this point.”
Dave Van Horn added: They did a great job.”
In Game 1, “they were throwing pitchers in who they weren’t really planning on using here. We took advantage of that, got some hits, a lot of things, they walked a lot of us.”
But “we knew today was going to be tough, they would throw their guys at us. When they got ahead of us it got real tough.”
While NC State played a great game, especially its stars like Jose Torres, Sam Highfill and Evan Justice, part of the blame for this loss has to fall at the feet of Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn.
Dave Van Horn and Ryan Costieu
It’s easy to make Razorback relief pitcher Ryan Costieu a scapegoat for giving up four runs on three hits in a four-batter span in the fourth inning of Arkansas vs NC State Game 2.
But there was no good reason for Costieu to be in there for that long in the first place.
Dave Van Horn, the reigning SEC Coach of the Year, has a famously short leash when it comes to tolerating mistakes from his pitchers.
Yet he didn’t pull it when doing so could have saved a run, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.
It is curious that Van Horn left him in the game following two home runs, after yanking starter Lael Lockhart before he had allowed a run. Costieu probably should have been removed after the first home run, and definitely after the second one.
Lockhart pitched well in the first two innings, allowing a lone base runner on a walk. Then, in the third inning, Lockhart was pulled following two singles and a sac-bunt.
Costeiu looked sharp in the 3rd inning. He got the first batter to groundout to second base and ended the inning on a backwards K.
“(Lockhart was) just behind most all the hitters,” Dave Van Horn said. “He was behind. Really wasn’t landing things. When he’s on, he can spot it up pretty good. He did throw a few baseballs in on the righties and we’re thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to be OK.’ They were just ahead in the count.”
In the 4th inning, location was Costeiu’s enemy. He allowed a hard hit single to lead off the inning, followed by back-to-back home runs. The first home run was a good piece of hitting — shortstop Jose Torres went down and pulled a low and away curveball just over the glove of a leaping Wallace in left. The home run visibly rattled Costeiu, as he appeared upset following the pitch.
“I think a couple of those, at least one, wasn’t a bad pitch,” Van Horn said.
“The first one was kind of down and away. He just went and got it, hit it out of the park. (He) missed some spots. Give them a lot of credit too, they fouled off a lot of pitches and finally got something they could handle. It was really hard to tell from the side, exactly where those pitches were located. They did a good job getting to them.”
The second home run was an 81-mph change up right down the middle to catcher Luca Tresh, his 15th of the season. The third home run was a belt-high 89 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate to third baseman Vojtech Mensik, the worst hitter in the NC State lineup.
Caden Monke came in to relieve Costeiu, and retired the next two batters quickly. The lanky lefty punched out three in 1 2/3 frames of relief work in the middle innings.
Arkansas Baseball Makes a Run
Trailing 6-2 in the top of the seventh, Arkansas showed signs of life with a three-run outburst.
Brady Slavens, who had a two-hit day in the losing effort, connected on his 14th home run of the year to cut the deficit to three before Casey Opitz reached on a two-out error, which brought home another run.
Afterward, Van Horn said it was good to see Slavens recapture some of his swing as he recovers from an ankle injury in late May.
“We need him to drive in some runs for us,” Van Horn said.
“He fouled off a pitcher or two and then he got one out over the plate, he hit it out of the park opposite field which is really good to see. I think his zone awareness is a little bit off right now for missing all those games but hopefully he’s getting better with that.”
“It was really good to see him hit that ball.”
Jalen Battles then laced a two-out single up the middle, scoring Cullen Smith from second to make it a one-run game at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Kevin Kopps entered the ballgame to start the bottom of the seventh and twirled two scoreless innings with two strikeouts. For once, the Hogs could not capitalize on the momentum and went down quietly in the final two frames to seal their fate.
Along with Kopps, who lowered his season ERA to a nation-best 0.66 in 81 2/3 innings pitched on the year.
One of the bright spots of the game was Charlie Welch’s two-run homerun in the second inning — his third in as many games.
The Razorbacks now lead the nation in home runs with 107.
It’s now down to a winner-take-all rubber match at 5 p.m. on Sunday to determine who will punch their ticket to the College World Series.
The game, in which Arkansas is the home team, is set to broadcast on either ESPN2 or ESPNU with Mike Morgan (play-by-play) and Todd Walker (analyst) on the call.
Arkansas is no 9-6 in Game 2s this season. The Hogs are 11-3 in Game 3s, and 5-0 following a loss.
As for who will start, Hawgbeat.com’s Andrew Hutchinson writes: “With Caleb Bolden out with arm soreness, freshman right-hander Jaxon Wiggins is the most likely option to start, but senior right-hander Zebulon Vermillion is also available.”
Lael Lockhart could also come out of the bullpen after throwing only 38 pitches.
“I would think so, for an inning or two,” Van Horn said. “I think he’s shown he can bounce back a little bit. He did it in the (SEC) Tournament.”
Kevin Kopps Will Start Game 3
Regardless, if a Razorback pitcher starts getting smacked around again, don’t expect Dave Van Horn to show any kind of patience this time around.
Especially with the ultimate closer, Kevin Kopps, waiting in the wings with everything on the line again.
In fact, on Sunday afternoon, the Arkansas baseball program announced Kopps would make his first start in a game since the 2020 game against Grand Canyon, which ended up being the Hogs’ final game of that season before the pandemic canceled all spring sports.
Kevin Kopps, who will go against NC State RHP Matt Willadsen, has a season ERA of 0.66 and 122 strikeouts on the year.
Opponents are hitting just .153 against him.
This will not be the first post season game for Kopps to start. He also started the rain game vs Missouri State in 2017.
What a Baum-Walker Stadium finale this promises to be for the best pitcher Arkansas baseball has ever seen.
Arkansas vs NC State Game 3: How to Watch
Where: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Sunday game time: 5 p.m. CT
Online live stream: ESPN.com/watch
Watch on TV: ESPN2 or ESPNU.
On DirecTV, ESPNU is channel 208. On Dish, ESPNU is channel 141.
On DirecTV, ESPN2 is channel 209. On Dish, ESPN2 is channel 143.
Online radio broadcast: TuneIn (Arkansas baseball broadcast)
More from Dave Van Horn after Arkansas vs NC State Game 2
On NC State pitcher Ryan Highfill:
“He threw a lot of his fastballs away, he spotted it pretty good …. We swung in some high pitches, especially early on. We went out of the zone too much. We had a chance to walk a couple of times and swung at balls that were up and fouled them off.”
“Swung and missed, popped up. He just got us to swing at and it cost us.”
On Christian Franklin playing Sunday:
“He felt well enough to play today. I told him kind of exactly what we were going to do. See how the game would go and then probably could put him in middle of the game.”
“I thought it’d be best if he fell his pitches off his right arm coming off the bench cold, hopefully we have a good day tomorrow.”
On how he thinks his Arkansas baseball players will respond in another Game 3:
“They usually respond, they played pretty well and they’ve been winning the series. I think it’s going to be great ball game, looking forward to it.”
On coming close in the seventh inning of Game 2:
“A lot of times if you’re gonna score three or four runs in an inning, you gotta get a little help – whether it’s a walk, or you get hit by a pitch or an error.”
“[NC State] had a throwing error that we extended our inning and scored a run on and we got another run with a base hit. Christian took some really good swings, followed a couple of pitches straight back and you’re thinking ‘Maybe we can get a hit here and tie this up. But Justice didn’t let it happen.”
On whether Jalen Battles should have tried to throw Luca Tresh out at home in the sixth inning instead of throwing for the sure out at first (that run proved to be the difference):
The next batter, Jarrett, hit a slow grounder to short. Battles charged it and peeked at Tresh darting home before throwing to first for the force.
Some may have speculated if Battles could have gotten the out at home, but Van Horn said it was definitely the right play to go to first for the sure out – even though that run proved to be the difference in the game.
“(Battles) was moving too far to his left. He would have to throw it sidearm off balance. They were running the contact play. It wasn’t like (Tresh) waited to see where it went.
“He was moving and shuffling, and when the ball was hit, he was gone.”
“If it been hit right at (Battles), he would have been out by 10 feet, but it wasn’t.”
Arkansas vs NC State Game 1
Arkansas fell behind 1-0 before scoring 21 unanswered runs between the bottom of the second and bottom of the eighth innings. The Razorbacks put up crooked numbers in the second, third, fifth, sixth and eighth, bashing four home runs and collecting 10 extra-base hits in the process.
Robert Moore had a night to remember, swatting his first of two dingers in the bottom half of the second to erase the Hogs’ early deficit with a two-run shot to right.
His second and final homer of the evening – a three-run shot to left center in the bottom of the eighth – was his team-leading 16th of the season and broke the school record for most runs scored in postseason history.
Moore matched his career bests in hits (4) and home runs (2) on the night, setting a new career high in runs scored (5) in the 21-2 win.
He was one of six Razorbacks, along with Matt Goodheart, Charlie Welch, Cullen Smith, Casey Opitz and Jalen Battles, to rack up double-digit base knocks in the ballgame.
Welch’s three-hit night included four RBI, two of which came on his second home run in as many games.
Smith had a two-hit outing and drove in all four of his runs on a grand slam in the bottom of the third, while Opitz and Brady Slavens also collected multiple RBI in the win.
In relief of Wicklander, Heston Tole pitched two scoreless frames in relief and matched his career high in strikeouts with four.
“I thought he did a really nice job tonight,” Van Horn said of Tole.
“He came in and he did go full count on a couple hitters that he ended up striking out. He fell behind 2-0 but he got them. Other than that, he was ahead of the count, throwing strikes, threw his fastball knee-high away, 90-91 mph… sliders, a couple of changeups to lefties… it was good to see.”
“We could have sent him back out in the ninth but we thought we might need him again, so we didn’t want to run his count up too much.”
Kole Ramage handled the final inning instead, punching out two while working around a two-out RBI triple. (via Razorback Communications)
Praise for Arkansas Baseball Ace Patrick Wicklander
Dave Van Horn focused on the fine performances of his pitchers, starting with praise for starter Patrick Wicklander, who turned in his fifth quality start of the year in Game 1.
The left-hander, who lowered his ERA to 2.11 and earned his seventh win of the season, struck out six in six innings of one-run ball while allowing six hits and walking two.
“They scored in the second on us and he got out of a jam in the third,” Van Horn said. “Maybe his confidence jumped, he got it together and gave us 3-4 more innings.”
“He started working ahead of hitters, started flipping some curveballs up there, a couple of change-ups…. got some pop-ups, fly balls, some quicker innings. That first inning, he threw a lot of pitches and we’re thinking, ‘he’s not going to be able to give us 3-4 innings, even if he turns it around because of his pitch count.’”
“But he went out and had a couple of good innings, one for sure with less than 10 pitches.”
In the below interview Patrick Wicklander added: ““My mindset was to get a punch out, to get him to bite on the fastball it was just a big-time pitch in a huge situation.”
Most impressively, the Hogs set a school record for most runs scored in an NCAA Tournament game with 21 in Friday night’s win.
That surpasses the previous best of 18 against Missouri State (6/5/15) in the Super Regionals at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“We’ve played so many tight games in the SEC tournament and also the regional, I mean it was different, it was nice to win one and know in the middle of the game that if we just held it together a little bit, we were going to win it,” Van Horn said.
“Because we’ve had some really tight ones, pins and needles basically. Gave us a chance to play a couple different guys and rest some guys for a few innings.”
“It just wasn’t expected, so that’s what made it different.”
In this game, NC State’s inexperience against elite teams showed. Before tonight, they have only played one of the current top-15 ranked teams. They lost two of three to No. 6 Notre Dame back in mid-April.
The Hogs, meanwhile, are 16-2 against the top-15 and 21-4 against the current top 25, while NC State is 3-4 overall against Top 25 teams.
RE: Bats Being Quiet Before Tonight
“I don’t know if the bats were kind of quiet if you look at our match-up against Nebraska, they had to bring in a lot of arms that matched up perfectly with our lineup because our lineup is so good and talented.”
“We are taking a lot of walks and a lot of good at bats we have been getting the job done. We’re not getting doubles, triples, and home runs like we used to, but I wouldn’t say they’re quiet.”
RE: Team Depth
“Someone made a comment the first week of the year and we went down to Texas, and we won those three games with different lineup because (Matt) Goodheart was out and guys playing a little out of position.”
“We do not necessarily have nine guys we have 12 or 13 we just don’t have a 9-guy lineup which is credit to out coaching staff and getting everyone here and with developing these players and that have players that are dynamic that can be in multiple roles.
RE: Cullen Smith Grand Slam Changing The Game
“It was huge because it put it out of reach where they were going to throw their main left-handers out of the pin.”
“Yes, they are saving them for tomorrow but it kind of guaranteed us a chance to win this game because they weren’t going to throw those two left-handers.”
Watch the grand slam in this video:
Dave Van Horn:
On the game swinging:
“Robert’s two-run homer and that was big, all of a sudden, we’re up 3-1.”
“It looked like [NC State] was going to get out of a jam, and with bases loaded Smith put the big swing on it. The ball was jumping’ tonight at the ballpark, big time. It almost played like the wind was blowing out. We got some balls up, hit them out of the park, took advantage of a lot of walks and different things too.”
“I think when NC State pulled Johnston, they went with some guys that weren’t as experienced when we got up 7-1, and I don’t blame [Coach Avent]. Sometimes you just have to let it go and that’s what they did.”
Centerfielder Christian Franklin couldn’t start today because of strep throat. So Brayden Webb did a good job replacing him.
“We just say, ‘next man up,'” Van Horn said.
“We feel like we’ve got some good players over there waiting to play and like I said, the team likes each other a lot. They help each other out, they pull for each other.”
“It’s just what we’ve been doing all year, it didn’t surprise me a bit. It was a good team effort.”
Scouting Arkansas vs NC State
The Wolfpack got off to a rough start in 2021. They started the season 4-9, but went 29-8 since then, including winning the Ruston Regional as the No. 2 seed there. Their record also reflected drastic improvement against ranked teams.
They played a number of ranked teams throughout the season, but most of those ACC teams have dropped out of the rankings since the teams met. NC State is 15-11 against teams who were ranked when they played.
They started 1-8 against ranked teams before winning 14 of the next 17. They also lost four of five series to ranked teams and then won their last three.
While No. 1 Arkansas enters this series as the favorites, the Wolfpack are ready to cause their own fireworks. They have a high-powered lineup and have been hitting very well in the tournament.
For the season, they have a very good .291 team batting average.
The top four hitters in NC State’s starting lineup each hit above .320, led by left fielder Jonny Butler who has an incredible .389 average to go with 12 home runs and a team-leading 46 RBIs.
Center fielder Tyler McDonough may still be the best hitter on the team. He has an impressive .351 average with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs.
“I always call him ‘Charlie Hustle’ or ‘Cincinnati’ just to remind him of Pete Rose.” NC State head coach Elliott Avent said in 2019. “Pete Rose is who he plays like. He plays with a high energy, with a love for the game and passion for the game.”
“We knew we had something special in him.”
Their offense led them through the Ruston Regional, going 3-0. They beat top-seed Louisiana Tech twice in their home stadium, (Arkansas had beaten La. Tech twice in three games at Ruston).
NC State’s Big Four each hit .400 or better in the Regional and led NC State to scoring 10 runs per game. As a team, they hit .382 in Ruston with a .441 on-base percentage.
They went deep seven times, five in one game against Alabama. Right fielder Devonte Brown hit three home runs over the weekend and catcher Luca Tresh hit two of his 12 long-balls in Ruston.
Kevin Kopps Ready for Arkansas vs NC State
Arkansas baseball has the most reliable relief pitcher in the country in Kevin Kopps, the National Collegiate Player of the Year. Kopps pitched 13 ⅓ innings in the regional and didn’t allow a run, including seven shutout innings out of the bullpen Monday to clinch the Regional.
“What a clutch performance by Kevin Kopps,” Van Horn said after the victory Monday. “He just kept fighting (for) us and it felt like he got better as the game went on. Coach (Hobbs) would talk to him every inning in the dugout. We thought we were going to let him go to the seventh inning, but he wouldn’t let us take him out.”
Kopps has seemingly gotten better as the season has gone on and he also gets better as the games go on.
“The more I throw, the better I feel,” Kopps said after the game.
“My stuff usually starts getting better, the more I throw.”
Feature photo via Baumology (Rhett Hutchins)
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