Darren McFadden, Sidney Moncrief, Andrew Benintendi and Kevin Kopps?
As the senior Arkansas pitcher, Kopps dominates college baseball like few pitchers ever have. His name can be tossed around with the immortals in Arkansas Razorbacks sports such as McFadden, the electric running back and Heisman Trophy finalist; Moncrief, one of the great guards in Arkansas hoops history; and Benintendi, who won the Golden Spikes Award given to the nation’s top college baseball player.
Kopps was so good Monday night in a 6-2 regional-clinching win against Nebraska, former Arkansas star outfielder and Baltimore Orioles prospect Heston Kjerstad called via Twitter for a statue to be built in Kopps’ honor. The Arkansas baseball Twitter account responded that the statue was “under construction.”
If one single-game performance could prompt such a statue, it was Kopps’ gem Monday night. After Jaxon Wiggins struggled a bit against the Huskers, Kopps came on in the third inning with no outs and two runners on. Kopps allowed just three hits and no runs in seven innings.
Arkansas trailed 1-0 when he entered and fell behind 2-0 when he gave up a fielder’s choice. The run was charged to Wiggins, and Kopps promptly got out of the inning and never allowed Nebraska to threaten again.
While he held the Cornhuskers in check, the Hogs’ bats woke up and tied the game.
In the eighth Arkansas rallied with two outs thanks in part to a walk by Christian Franklin. He scored on a wild pitch for the go-ahead run and then Charlie Welch blasted a three-run, pinch hit home run that sealed the game.
Kopps came out in the ninth, adrenaline pumping, and was even filthier, retiring Nebraska quickly to end the game.
“I’ve never seen anything like it as long as I’ve been involved in college baseball, to have a guy that’s able to go out there and compete at such a high level in such an environment on this stage and to do it over and over and over,” Nebraska Coach Will Bolt, who played for Van Horn at Nebraska, told the media Monday night. “The guy is … he was incredible today. Early on I thought maybe he wasn’t quite as sharp maybe from being a little tired, but it just felt like he got better and better as the game went along.”
Kopps earned Fayetteville Regional MVP honors tossing 13 1/3 innings of relief scattering just six hits and no walks with 15 strikeouts.
Kopps has now appeared in 31 of the Hogs’ 60 games in 2021 and is 12-0 with 11 saves. He owns a sparkling 0.68 ERA. That’s the lowest ERA for an SEC pitcher logging at least 40 innings since 1981. Kopps’ 120 strikeouts rank no. 6 on the Arkansas single-season list.
What Kopps is doing is superhuman like McFadden carving up SEC defenses. Remember watching him in awe as he rushed for an SEC record of 321 yards in a win against South Carolina and a few weeks later as he and the Hogs knocked off No. 1 LSU in three overtimes at Baton Rouge as the Little Rock native ran for 206 yards and three TDs? Those are feats that are easy for Hogs fans to point to, and Kopps’ regional performance is in the same neighborhood.
A pitcher isn’t supposed to be able to pitch that many innings on short rest. He can pitch more games in a row than a starter and more than just one inning per game like a closer. He is the best of both worlds, and is the most important reason the Hogs won every SEC series this year and are the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Monday night was his signature moment – saving the Hogs from a big upset. It was similar to when Brady Toops hit a grand slam, walk-off home run to knock off Wichita State and stave off elimination in the 2004 Fayetteville Regional. I thought Toops was a household name among Hogs fansbut after a discussion with a colleague in his 30s, I discovered he wasn’t familiar with that home run or Charley Boyce, Toops’ battery mate, who pitched on back-to-back days to help secure a second win against the Shockers following Toops’ heroics in the first game.
I forget that many Hogs fans aren’t really baseball fans. It is around that time that many decided to quit worrying about who the third string quarterback would be for the following football season and give Van Horn and the Diamond Hogs a try.
But, what that also proves is big moments are made bigger with championships. What if that 2004 team won the College World Series? Would there be a more prominent mention of Toops around the ballpark? A plaque, banner or more?
Fans of a certain age remember U.S. Reed’s half-court shot to beat Louisville in the second round of the1981 NCAA Tournament. What if the Hogs won the title that year? What if that shot happened in the Final Four? I
I doubt there are too many Hogs fans, young or old, who haven’t seen Scotty Thurman’s iconic three-pointer against Duke in the 1994 NCAA Tournament Championship game. Why? Because it won Arkansas its lone national title.
McFadden was the best player to don a Hogs uniform, but he never got to play on the biggest stage. Benintendi won the Golden Spikes Award, but the Hogs didn’t come through in Omaha. Moncrief played with “The Triplets” in the Final Four and is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but he couldn’t lead the Hogs to a championship.
The list is long of memorable Hogs stars such as Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, Matt Jones, Dan Hampton and Kevin McReynolds who starred on The Hill and had memorable postseason accomplishments, that wouldn’t be the same strata with Kopps if the Hogs win a title this year.
If Kopps can help Arkansas win its first College World Series, he is on the Mount Rushmore of Hogs with Frank Broyles, Nolan Richardson and D-Mac. The same rarified air with Corliss Williamson, Thurman’s teammate on the ‘94 team and the National Player of the Year in ‘94.
He will be crowned the greatest Hogs baseball player of all-time no matter what happens in his professional career. It’s telling that Kjerstad, who was picked No. 2 in the 2020 MLB Draft and a former teammate of Kopps, is calling for the statue because if his MLB career pans out the way it could, his legend as a Hog would be even more cemented.
But, like Benintendi, he never won a College World Series. That is in Kopps’ grasp, and if the Hogs finish as winners in Omaha, the relief pitcher’s seat among all of the Hogs sports elite is assured.
Image courtesy of University of Arkansas Athletics