FAYETTEVILLE — Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks came up one win short of making it to Omaha for the third year in a row, but he was proud of the team that won the SEC regular season and SEC Tournament.
In addition, as he should have, he defended the decision to send Kevin Kopps to the mound to start the ninth inning.
“Well the decision was that he was still pitching really well,” Van Horn said. “We just tied the game up. That was gonna be his last inning no matter what. There’s not much difference between 114 and 125 pitches. It’s all the same. So does that answer your question.”
Van Horn sending Kopps back out to pitch the ninth or his decision to start his ace had nothing to do with the Razorbacks losing. After scoring 21 runs and getting 17 hits on Friday, the Hogs only got four hits both Saturday and Sunday. The Hogs stranded seven runners on Sunday.
“Just two tough losses the last couple of days,” Van Horn said. “Really you’ve just got to give North Carolina State credit. They played great. They got big hits and their pitchers did a great job. They really, the two lefties today who finished up the game and the starter kept us off balance.
“We had a chance to score there, maybe another run or two or maybe more in the second. He got out of that jam and he just made it tough on us.”
What did Matt Willadsen do to keep the hitters off balance?
“He threw his fastball away and he was throwing a curveball and a changeup, a cutter/slider type pitch,” Van Horn said. “The curveball was really slow. I think he changes speeds on his changeups as well. We had seen a lot of video on him. The guys, they knew what was coming, but he kept them off balance. The first inning he got a couple of quick outs from our leadoff man and our three-hole hitter on ground balls off of change-ups and that’s what we didn’t want to do. He just pitched really well.”
Kopps hadn’t started a game this season, but having already started Patrick Wicklander and Lael Lockhart he opted to go with Kopps.
“Kevin Kopps is an amazing pitcher, an amazing human being Just man,” Van Horn said. “He really wanted the ball today. He talked to us last night about it after the game. It was fun watching him work today. So, I don’t know, it didn’t go our way. We just didn’t do much offensively. We got four hits and hit two or three or four other balls hard. They were at people, but we just couldn’t get that big hit to put us over the top really the last couple of days.”
Was there any debate among the staff about starting Kopps?
“Yeah, there was a lot last night, about an hour after the game we just met,” Van Horn said. “A lot of the players were still there. A lot of them were dehydrated, trying to get, trying to feel better. We talked about how many pitches Kevin could throw and how many innings he could throw and did we want to bring him in as early as the second inning. And if you’re going to bring him in the second why not just start him? And he wanted to start, so that’s what we did.”
Kopps said he knew when he left Baum-Walker Stadium Saturday night he was going to start Sunday’s game.
“We had a conversation about it last night right after the game,” Kopps said. “Coach (Matt) Hobbs just asked me if I wanted to start. He just said I had earned the right I guess to tell them yes or no. Yeah, my career and my teammates on the line of course I wanted the ball.”
Kopps got his pitch count up high at the first of the game throwing more balls than usual. However, he settled down as the game went along just as he has much of the season.
“I mean he was behind in the count,” Van Horn said. “He was behind in the count off and on the whole game. I don’t think it was just late in the game. I thought late in the game he was better than he was early in the game to be honest with you. He made a mistake and I don’t even know how much of a mistake it was. I just think (Jose) Torres went down and hit a good pitch and hit it a long way. You’ve got to give him credit. So I didn’t see it that way.”
Kopps explained why he seemed to start slowly getting behind in counts and throwing a lot of pitches early on.
“In the beginning of the game I think I was trying to pitch more as a closing role,” Kopps said. “Just putting a lot of effort behind pitches. And I didn’t have the best stuff today so I just started focusing on, honestly another quote by Greg Maddux, he talked about when he got tired he just tried to hit spots more and when other people try and throw hard I just try and slow myself down and hit more spots and locate better vs. just trying to throw it by people.”
The season ended earlier than Arkansas wanted, but that didn’t stop Kopps from signing autographs after the game as he regularly does.
“One of the great things to think about, it’s a quote from Michael Jordan he’s talking about that it’s important to give back to the fans because they give so much to us,” Kopps said.
Kopps staying and signing autographs even after a heartbreaking loss didn’t surprise Van Horn at all.
“Kevin’s an incredible person,” Van Horn said. “He’s a great baseball player and he made himself great. There’s not too many guys I would let pitch as much as I let him. He’s an older kid. He knows that pro ball’s going to be there a little bit. Is he going to pitch very long? We’ll see. He’s going to be really successful in everything he does, anything he does, honestly. He’s got a plan for his life. That’s just how he is. He’s very humble and he did everything he could for this team. I think you’re going to see some pretty good awards come his way in the next couple of weeks.”
Arkansas ends the season 50-13.