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Even for someone who’s been around the game as long as Dave Van Horn, it’s hard to put into words what Kevin Kopps has done for Arkansas this season.
Following the right-hander’s perfect seven-out save that finished off a 7-0 win over LSU on Friday, the veteran coach struggled to verbalize to the media his thoughts while watching Kopps’ dominance over the past few weekends.
Van Horn eventually settled on one word – ‘Wow’ – and it is an apt description. Since issuing a leadoff walk in the ninth inning of the Razorbacks’ 2-1 extra-inning win over Texas A&M on April 17, Kopps has retired 28 consecutive batters, including 19 via strikeouts.
Granted it spans four appearances, but that is the equivalent of a perfect game plus an out and it’s all been against SEC competition.
“He’s just on a roll,” Van Horn said. “I’ve seen teams take pitches on him, I’ve seen them swing early trying to get him before he gets ahead and it hasn’t worked yet. Hopefully he’ll keep doing what he’s doing.”
Just putting the ball in play has been a challenge for opposing hitters recently. When Braden Doughty grounded out to third base to start the ninth inning Friday, it snapped a streak of 11 consecutive strikeouts by Kopps.
That stretch started with the final out of Arkansas’ Game 1 win at South Carolina, continued with six straight to end the rubber match win over the Gamecocks and was capped by four straight to start Friday’s outing.
Kopps’ first strikeout against the Tigers was a big one, as it stranded a runner on second base with the score just 2-0 in the seventh inning.
The only other non-strikeout out for Kopps on Friday was a weak ground ball by Tre’ Morgan that he fielded himself before striking out star freshman Dylan Crews to end the game.
“I’m waiting for the time that someone hits the ball out to me because no one has since he’s been pitching this season,” center fielder Christian Franklin said. “I’ll be surprised when somebody hits one off of him. It’s been nice to know when he’s coming in that he’s going to get the job done in any situation.”
The performance improved Kopps’ already gaudy numbers in 2021. He now has a 0.92 ERA and 0.86 WHIP to go along with 71 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings. If he had enough innings to qualify for the national leaderboard, his 16.2 strikeouts per nine innings would rank third in Division I behind only Maine’s Nicholas Sinacola (17.1) and Fordham’s Matt Mikulski (16.8).
In SEC play, his statistics are even better. Kopps has a 0.61 ERA and 0.74 WHIP in 29 2/3 innings spread across 11 conference appearances, plus SEC hitters are batting just .158 against him.
“The ball’s moving all over the place,” Van Horn said. “Then he’ll sling it – I think he threw a fastball that I saw at 94 on the scoreboard once, 92, 93, cutter (at) 87, sliders. I mean, it’s been really impressive, just the fact that he just keeps repeating it.”
Perhaps the best thing about his performance Friday night is that it required only 29 pitches, so Van Horn said he’s “good to go” for Saturday’s doubleheader.
The two games – both of which will be a full nine innings – are scheduled for 2 and 6:30 p.m. CT and will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.