In terms of how the national media perceives Razorback sports, it’s no surprise that Arkansas usually comes up with the short end of the stick.
For parts of this season, it seemed like Arkansas baseball may be the exception.
Most notably, when Robert Moore was jeered by South Carolina fans a few weeks ago, Aaron Fitt of D1Baseball.com stuck up for him in ways few national writers ever do when it comes to Razorbacks.
“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger. And you don’t mess around with Robert Moore,” he wrote after Moore had hushed the crowd with a two-run home run.
While Moore is one of the most popular Arkansas baseball players, arguably its most popular player — relief pitcher Kevin Kopps — isn’t getting the same level of national love.
In fact, when it comes to the national sports outlet The Athletic, the opposite appears to be playing out.
Kevin Kopps Doesn’t Make the Cut
Kopps is delivering one of the greatest seasons by an Arkansas baseball pitcher ever. And even though he didn’t deliver his best stuff on Friday night, he still helped close out a huge 6-5 win over No. 4 Tennessee.
Had it not been that performance, Arkansas would have been in an 0-2 hole going into Arkansas vs Tennessee Game 3 on Sunday.
“I thought his stuff was not his best and he just gutted it out,” Van Horn said. “He pitched on a lot of heart and toughness.”
“He just kept fighting them out there. He made a few good pitches, though, but he just didn’t make as many as normal.”
In SEC conference play, he had a 0.45 ERA and 0.78 WHIP and has held opponents to a .167 batting average heading into Tennessee-Arkansas Game 1.
“Over four SEC appearances last month, he actually retired 28 batters in a row – the equivalent of a perfect game plus an extra out – with 19 coming via strikeouts. That stretch included 11 straight strikeouts at one point,” Andrew Hutchinson of HawgBeat.com wrote.
“I have no words,” teammate Peyton Pallette said.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen… Everybody in the dugout, whenever he goes in, we’re like, ‘Okay, he’s going to get three outs real quick.’”
Aaron Fitt feels the love. “He is the most important player, in my opinion, on the best team in the country,” Fitt said.
“As good as Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter have been, I think Kevin Kopps really does have a chance to win the SEC Pitcher of the Year award.”
Patrick Ebert, a long-time national writer, told sports radio host JB Bertaccini that Kopps “is a legitimate Golden Spikes candidate.”
“You can find other players that are having big years, (but) I’m not so sure there’s a combination of a player having a big year with as much importance to his team as Kevin Kopps has to Arkansas right now.”
On this site, I pointed out that when it comes to ERA Kevin Kopps is pitching better than all previous National Pitcher of the Year award winners except one.
Not that The Athletic’s Keith Law cares.
On Wednesday, the senior baseball writer released a 2021 MLB Draft Big Board in which he lays out who he thinks should be among the top 100 picks in the 2021 MLB Draft.
Not surprisingly, Vanderbilt’s ace pitchers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter check in high, at No. 4 and No. 5, respectively.
Other SEC players he lists include:
No. 25: Dylan Smith, Alabama
No. 26: Tommy Mace, Florida
No. 27: Jaden Hill, LSU
No. 30: Gunnar Hoglund, Ole Miss
No. 56: Ryan Webb, Georgia
No. 72: Jonathan Cannon
No. 82: Richard Fitts, Auburn
No. 96: Bryce Miller, Texas A&M
The only Arkansas baseball player he ranks is Christian Franklin, at No. 75.
Here’s what he says about the possible All-American outfielder: “Franklin has huge power and could be a 60 defender in center, but his swing is wildly inconsistent and he doesn’t use his legs well at the plate, part of why he’s always had trouble making contact.”
Painfully absent on Law’s list is Kevin Kopps.
The reason why is provided in the article’s comments, when a reader, John B. asks “No Kevin Kopps anywhere? You think pro hitters are that much better?”
Another reader, Neil S. responded with: “Pro hitters are that much better, yes.”
“It’s not that impressive that a 24 year old relief pitcher with no previous history of performance is pitching well in short stints against college kids.”
To which Keith Law chimed in on Neil S.’s comment: “Exactly. Well said.”
No, not really.
There are some important facts missing in this discussion of Kopps.
For starters, how about the fact that these aren’t normal “college kids” that Kopps is roasting. They are the best players in the nation, from the best conference.
Also, let’s examine the idea that Kopps is only pitching in “short stints.”
He’s pitched twice in all series this season save one. Some of his outings, like his most recent against Tennessee, have gone three or four plus innings.
In only three innings he threw 66 pitches. Last week, against Georgia, Kopps threw 111 pitches — the equivalent of a starting pitcher’s workload.
“He threw 54 pitches in three scoreless innings to earn the save in the Razorbacks’ series-opening victory,” Hutchinson wrote. “Two days later, he pitched the final 4 1/3 innings against the Bulldogs on 57 pitches, once again not allowing a run and this time earning the win.”
On top of that, he’s added significant velocity since last summer as he has further recovered from Tommy John surgery and reverted to a two-seam grip.
“His cutter added anywhere from 8-14 more inches of vertical movement, which paired nicely with his low-90s fastball that has a ton of horizontal movement and has touched 95 mph,” Hutchinson wrote.
“Throw in his curveball and changeup, plus his ability to keep everything low in the zone after throwing everything belt high the previous season, and Kopps suddenly had a lethal arsenal.”
At this point, to say that Kopps doesn’t deserve to be picked among the top 100 players in the upcoming MLB Draft is laughable.
Turns out, though, he’s been in a similar place before.
When he was coming out of high school, Perfect Game didn’t consider him one of the top 712 players in the class of 2015. Kopps was the equivalent of a two-star in college football.
It took a few years, but Kevin Kopps proved the recruiting analysts wrong.
Rest assured, he’ll do the same with these MLB Draft analysts who don’t know any better.
Arkansas vs. Tennessee Game 1
KNOXVILLE, Ark. – Trailing by five after the first inning of play, No. 1 Arkansas came roaring back with six unanswered runs to snag a 6-5 win in the series opener against No. 4 Tennessee on Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Tennessee was all over starter Patrick Wicklander in the bottom of the first inning, breaking out for five runs (two earned) in the frame. The Volunteers’ biggest blow came via a two-out, three-run homer, which extended their first-inning lead to five.
Arkansas would not be deterred, however, answering with two runs in the top of the second. Robert Moore crushed his team-leading 12th home run of the season, swatting a two-run shot over the short wall in right.
The Razorbacks tacked on two more in the top of the third. Brady Slavens went to the opposite field for his 11th blast of the year, driving home two runs and bringing Arkansas within one.
Caden Monke, who entered the ballgame in the bottom of the third, was called upon to keep the deficit there. The lefty inherited two runners on base and walked the first he faced before escaping the jam without harm.
From there, Monke was simply superb. He retired nine of the next 10 batters he faced, striking out three in his 3 1/3 innings.
The Razorback offense took advantage while Monke was dominating, evening things up at five in the top of the fifth. Consecutive walks to Jalen Battles and Zack Gregory set the table for Cayden Wallace’s game-tying RBI single to left.
Kevin Kopps took over in the bottom of the seventh with the Hogs and Vols still tied at five. The righty worked around a two-out walk, battling through a 15-pitch at-bat to collect an inning-ending strikeout.
Slavens’ leadoff double in the top of eighth put the Razorbacks in the driver’s seat. The first baseman advanced to third on a wild pitch before scoring the go-ahead run on Moore’s sacrifice fly to the wall in center.
Staked with a 6-5 lead, Kevin Kopps worked a scoreless bottom of the eighth and a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth to secure the win. Braydon Webb, who entered the contest in the eighth as a defensive replacement in left field, made a tremendous catch up against the wall in the ninth to quell a potential Tennessee rally.
Kopps logged two strikeouts in his three innings of work, allowing only one hit and a walk.
The reliever is now a perfect 8-0 on the year, owning a nation-best 0.68 ERA in 52.2 innings pitched.
Arkansas vs. Tennessee Game 2
Three outs away from a ninth consecutive SEC series win, No. 1 Arkansas was burned by a three-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth, falling to No. 4 Tennessee in a heartbreaker, 8-7, on Saturday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Tennessee and Arkansas now enter today’s series finale tied atop the conference standings.
For the second day in a row, Arkansas spotted Tennessee a couple of runs in the first inning. The Razorbacks’ deficit grew to three in the bottom of the fourth as Arkansas was kept scoreless through the first five innings of Saturday’s contest.
The comeback bid began in the sixth on Braydon Webb’s two-run shot to left. The outfielder’s fifth home run of the year brought the Hogs within one.
A few batters later, Christian Franklin hammered a no-doubter over the wall in left center. Franklin’s 11th blast of the season, punctuated by a magnificent bat flip, tied the ballgame at three.
Arkansas’ offense would not stop there. Jalen Battles doubled home Casey Opitz for the Razorbacks’ first lead of the afternoon before Webb dropped down a textbook RBI bunt single to extend the advantage to 5-3 in the seventh.
From there, the Razorbacks and Volunteers exchanged runs for the remainder of the game. Arkansas would enter the bottom of the ninth with a 7-5 lead, handing the ball to Jaxon Wiggins to close it out.
A leadoff bloop single and full-count walk set the stage for Tennessee’s dramatic finish. Volunteer second baseman Max Ferguson homered on the first pitch he saw for the 8-7 walk-off win.
Despite the loss, Caleb Bolden (3.1 IP) and Ryan Costeiu (1.1 IP) were strong in middle relief for the Hogs. The duo combined to strike out five, limiting the Volunteers to only two runs over 4 2/3 innings and allowing Arkansas to dig itself out of the early deficit.
How to watch Arkansas vs Tennessee Game 3
Arkansas Razorbacks (38-10, 18-8 SEC) vs. Tennessee Volunteers (39-12, 18-8 SEC)
WHERE: Lindsey Nelson Stadium (4,283 cap.) | Knoxville (Tenn.)
WHEN: 12 pm noon (CT)
- Game 3: Streamed on SEC Network+ or HERE
RADIO: RSN (92.1 FM in Fayetteville), TuneIn
VOICES: Phil Elson on radio |Bob Kesling and Rusty Ensor on stream | Clay Matvick and Chris Burke on Game 2 TV
Hear more about how Kevin Kopps has overcome injuries and doubts here: