Top ranked Arkansas was three outs away from taking its crucial SEC series with No. 4 Tennessee, leading 7-5 going into the bottom of the 9th. But things quickly fell apart when Dave Van Horn inserted right hander Jaxon Wiggins to close the game out. It was Wiggins’ first appearance in an SEC game in over three weeks.
The true freshman from Roland, Oklahoma gave up an odd lead off single to catcher Connor Pavoloni on a high pop up that carried out into shallow right center behind second base. Pavoloni looked to his left and didn’t start running to first until his teammates began yelling at him. Hogs’ second baseman Robert Moore was not able to reach the ball but came close to throwing the late reacting Pavoloni out at first base. Wiggins then walked a batter before giving up a game winning three-run homer to Tennessee junior second baseman Max Ferguson.
The dramatic comeback evened the series at a game apiece and allowed the Vols to pull back into a first place tie with Arkansas for the overall lead in the SEC standings.
Van Horn appeared to have better options than going with the recently little used Wiggins. Junior right-handed reliever Ryan Costeiu had come out of the bullpen with two outs in the 7th after Tennessee junior Jake Rucker reached first on an infield single. Costeiu proceeded to strike out centerfielder Drew Gilbert on three pitches. Arkansas staked Costeiu two a two-run lead going into the bottom of the 8th. He struck out the first two batters, gave up a solo homer but came back to end the inning on another strike out. Arkansas got that run back in the top of the 9th so why didn’t Van Horn let Costeiu close the game out?
“Costeiu, he was done,” Van Horn told reporters after the game. “That’s what he does. Four outs maybe. Every time we’ve sent him back out (after that) it hasn’t gone real good.”
What about Kopps, arguably the best pitcher in the SEC, who has responded time after time in this 2021 season? Yes Kopps did throw three full innings of one-hit baseball to close out Tennessee in a 6-5 game one win. But he’s not only pitched multiple innings in back-to-back games, he’s done it in doubleheaders this season.
Perhaps all that work is finally catching up to the senior right-hander. Without getting specific Van Horn appeared to indicate that Kopps needs some rest before returning to the mound in this series.
“Definitely not today. I didn’t even have his name on the board,” Van Horn revealed. “We’ll talk to him tomorrow morning. It’ll be up to him on that but it will probably be for just a little bit.”
As for Wiggins, he was a regular part of the Hogs bullpen through game three of the Texas A&M series on April 18th. He came on to no hit the Aggies over the final two innings of that game but Arkansas could not generate any late offense in an 11-10 loss.
Mysteriously, Wiggins did not pitch for the next 22 days, missing entire series against South Carolina, LSU and Georgia. His absence finally ended when Van Horn penciled Wiggins in as a starter in last Tuesday’s game against Arkansas State. In two innings of work he gave up just one hit and no runs. That was apparently enough to convince Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs that Wiggins, if needed, should close out game two against Tennessee.
“We went with a guy that had closed some games,” Van Horn said of Wiggins. “He had some saves in some big games early. So he was the obvious choice. If we had brought in somebody else and it hadn’t gone good we would have second guessed ourselves.”
So the series now rests with the Hogs bats and whatever is left of Arkansas’ pitching staff. “There’s a couple of guys we have in mind,” Van Horn said of his Sunday options without naming a starting pitcher. “One, left. One right.”
The Hogs have been in this position before but Kopps has always been available for two, three or even four innings. That doesn’t appear to be the case for Sunday.
It may well come down to how well Arkansas can hit Tennessee’s game-three pitching. The Vols have lost Sunday contests to both Vanderbilt and Florida this season. Starter Blade Tidwell went just three innings against the Commodores giving up six hits and four runs. He went five innings against the Gators who collected eight hits and three runs against him.
As for the bullpen, both teams have used most of their better relievers but Vols head coach Tony Vitello says he figures there will be some recycling on the part of both teams.
First place in the SEC and probably the Hogs’ number one ranking will be on the line for bunch of guys who are going to have to bounce back from a rare 9th inning gut punch