FAYETTEVILLE — Premier SEC starting pitchers Kumar Rocker of Vanderbilt and Arkansas’ Patrick Wicklander couldn’t last through the fourth inning of Thursday night’s SEC Tournament winner’s bracket game at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Alabama.
But Arkansas reliever/SEC Pitcher of the Year Kevin Kopps lived up to his billing.
Inheriting a 6-4 lead from Arkansas third of fourth pitcher used Caden Monke, but also inheriting a seventh-inning leadoff walk to No. 9 Commodores hitter Jayson Gonzalez and a 2-0 count on Commodores leadoff hitter Enrique Bradfield, Kopps consecutively retired Vandy’s last nine batters, including striking out five, for his ninth save in the 6-4 victory over the nation’s third-ranked team.
It advanced nationally No. 1 SEC regular season champion Arkansas from the tourney’s double-elimination phase to Saturday’s winner take all semifinal leading into Sunday’s championship game.
Arkansas senior designated hitter Matt Goodheart of Magnolia, the All-SEC DH but striking out four times, going 0 for 6 Wednesday against Georgia, snapped his slump Thursday.
Starting with a second-inning bases loaded hit by pitch, Goodheart registered three RBI Thursday including the two-run double, capping a three-run fourth that banished Rocker and vaulted Arkansas from down 3-2 to up 5-3.
“We’re glad to see him snap out of it,” Van Horn said of Goodheart. “That was a big swing for us.
Freshman reserve outfielder Ethan Bates of Hot Springs, shared hitting hero honors with Goodheart. Bates singled home Arkansas’ first run in a two-run second inning, accounted for Arkansas’ final run with a fifth-inning sacrifice fly and drew a leadoff walk and scored on Goodheart’s fourth-inning two-run double that was followed by Cullen Smith’s single off reliever Chris McElvain scoring Goodheart.
Because slugging first baseman Brady Slavens is sidelined from spraining his ankle during Wednesday’s win over Georgia, Bates in a Razorbacks reshuffled lineup started in right field with freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace moved to third base, his regular position at Greenbrier High School, and third baseman Cullen Smith moved to first base.
Thursday’s victory earns Arkansas, 44-10, Friday off while Ole Miss, a 4-0 Thursday loser’s bracket winner over Georgia, was set to rematch Vanderbilt, a 7-4 winner over Ole Miss Wednesday, in Friday’s loser’s bracket final.
Saturday’s winner between Arkansas and Friday’s Vanderbilt versus Ole Miss survivor, on Sunday for the championship, plays Saturday’s opposite bracket winner set up with SEC Tournament unbeaten Florida on Saturday playing against Friday’s loser’s bracket final rematch between Tennessee and Alabama.
Van Horn had wanted to rest workhorse Kopps, 10-0 and nine saves, and a nationally leading 0.68 earned run average, some this tournament for next week’s NCAA Regionals but also wanted to work him a couple of innings keeping him in routine.
Entering in Thursday’s seventh, an inning earlier than Van Horn had hoped, not only kept Kopps in routine but Friday’s day off helps the Hogs not only for this tournament but next week’s all important Regional.
“It’s great to get tomorrow off to just get ready for Saturday’s game, physically and mentally,” Van Horn said.
They all could relax once Kopps entered the fray covering three innings on amazingly efficient 30 pitches.
“We wanted Kevin to go two innings, eighth and ninth,” Van Horn said. “But Monke was wild tonight. We had to make the move. Kevin was outstanding. I think he got three outs on six pitches when he came in and really could have got three outs on four pitches if we turn the double play.”
Goodheart said the Hogs can’t humanly expect perfection every time Kopps pitches … and yet ….
“It’s the same old song and dance,” Goodheart marveled postgame. “Kevin has pitched as well as I’ve seen anyone at any level. It’s unbelievable.”
Rocker, 11-3 with 135 strikeouts in 91 innings, and Wicklander, 5-1 and 2.19 ERA, have had many an unbelievable moment this season and flashed some again Thursday night before both unraveled.
“Both starters didn’t have it tonight,” Van Horn said. “To speak on Wicklander, he couldn’t locate his fastball like normal. He was behind in the count a lot, and he couldn’t land his curveball. He didn’t have good stuff. He fought it a little bit. He gave us 3.2, and we just felt it was time to get him. It was just too wild.”
Victimized in on a two-out first-inning extending bloop single over second lost in the high twilight sky setting up CJ Rodriguez’s two-run double, Wicklander induced a second-inning double play and thus erased eight consecutively until issuing two two-out walks sandwiching a single bringing in Costeiu to strike out Jayson Gonzalez.
Costeiu was tagged for Isaiah Thomas’ leadoff home run in the fifth then retired the side and turned it over to Monke.
Monke issued a one-out walk in the sixth erased on a double play but after a leadoff four-pitch walk and 2-0 count was rescued by Kopps in the seventh.
“My approach didn’t change,” Kopps said of inheriting a 2-0 count. “I just pounded the zone with cutters and just trusted the results and got through the inning. I knew I’d be ready to extend if they needed me to, and I just kind of went out and did that.”
Rocker looked unhittable in the first striking out the side. But in the second he opened walking Christian Franklin and was tagged for Robert Moore’s single to left before Bates delivered his one-out RBI single to right.
“Ethan Bates had a great night for us,” Van Horn said. “Just a super game.”
Rocker walked nine-hole hitter Zack Gregory with two out and then hit with Goodheart with the bases loaded pitch evoking initial gasps before it was realized the pitch glanced entirely off Goodheart’s helmet.
Rocker walked another in the third and had thrown 86 pitches when Goodheart’s one-out double finished him after Bates’ walk and Battles’ single opened the inning capped by Smith’s RBI single.
A Robert Moore walk, wild pitch, and Casey Opitz’s runner advancing grounder to right preceded Bates’ fifth-inning sacrifice fly to center.
Catcher Opitz saved a run, nailing leadoff batter Bradfield trying to steal third in Vandy’s two-run first.
Van Horn told the SEC Network that Slavens’ ankle isn’t broken but the sprain will sideline him the remainder of the SEC Tournament.
Right-handed pitcher Caleb Bolden, 2-0, 4.89, likely starts Saturday for his Hogs, Van Horn said.