FAYETTEVILLE — After a shaky start to the weekend on Saturday, Arkansas’ pitching staff rose to the occasion on Sunday and Monday to allow the Razorbacks to beat three ranked teams.
The Arkansas staff allowed nine runs, nine hits and struck out 10 against Texas Tech on Saturday night. The Hogs rallied to win that game 13-9. But then the staff limited Texas and TCU combined to one run, four hits and struck out 33. The Hogs beat Texas 4-0 and TCU 4-1.
Dave Van Horn was obviously elated at his staff performing at that rate.
“I mean pitching the last two nights has been outstanding obviously,” Van Horn said. “It took our offense a while to get going, really both nights. We made a few base-running mistakes after really running the bases well on Saturday. It hurt us tonight but we overcame it.
“The pitchers, I talked to them in the outfield about just what a great job they’ve done the last couple of days after the first day didn’t go so well. They bounced back. They’re tough. (Lael) Lockhart gave us some quality innings. Maybe 4 innings. Then obviously we went through a few, with (Evan) Taylor and (Jaxon) Wiggins and (Ryan) Costeiu and then (Kevin) Kopps came in and shut the door the last two innings.”
Kevin Kopps pitched the final two innings on Monday night allowing no runs and striking out five to earn the save. That came after he pitched one inning on Saturday allowing two hits and one run against the Red Raiders. Did Van Horn have any hesitancy turning to Kopps on Monday night?
“Probably more than anything just experience,” Van Horn said. “We know pretty quick if he’s got that cutter going, and he did. So we decided once we saw him out there. If it hadn’t gone good the first hitter or two we would have gone with someone else. I mean we had some good arms out there that haven’t thrown yet. (Connor) Noland, (Zack) Morris. We’ve got (Blake) Adams, (Evan) Gray. All these guys, I mean you haven’t seen them, but they’re pretty good. Just give him the first shot. He had a good eighth inning and we thought, hey, just send him back out. We punched in a couple of runs to give us a little bit of breathing room. Just glad he threw well. Good for him.”
Kopps talked about the difference on Saturday than the other two games.
“I think it was just getting our feet under us,” Kopps said. “Just getting a little bit of confidence and belief in ourselves, I would say. Just being able to stop the bats when we need to stop the bats.”
The staff had 33 strikeouts the final two games in Arlington. Does that reflect to a lot of power arms on the staff?
“I think it just speaks on our pitching staff and what we’re capable of,” Kopps said. “We’ve got a ton of talent and a lot of guys with a lot of wicked good stuff. It doesn’t matter who you throw in there, they’re going to be able to stop them.”
Van Horn was asked if all the outstanding performances on the staff makes it harder for him going forward as far as making decisions?
“I like having some decisions to make,” Van Horn said laughing. “That’s good. Wiggins is a guy we almost started here, but we also could use him as a closer for a while. He’s definitely a starting pitcher whether it’s this year or in the future. But he doesn’t care. He’ll do what’s best for our team. He’s good arm, he’s got a plus changeup. He’s got a good curveball, too, when he needs to use it.
“What can you say about (Caleb) Bolden? He was outstanding last night. I think he went four innings and didn’t give up a hit. I don’t know if he walked anybody. I think he hit somebody. But, yeah … Bolden’s another guy. He was the hardest conversation that Coach (Matt) Hobbs had with pitchers on starting. It was great to just see what he could do, and he did it.
“Yeah, it’ll be interesting. We have two days, and then we have four days in a row Thursday through Sunday. So we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to handle this, and some guys are going to get the ball this week.”
Van Horn was asked what he thought of Wiggins’ performance on Monday night which drew a laugh from the coach.
“I got a chuckle on that one,” Van Horn said. “I mean, he saw three hitters and struck them all out and it was the first time he got on the mound in college. It was about as good as it could go. He’s throwing the ball extremely hard and he threw some plus-changeups. Just really happy for him because he’s got a special arm. He’s got a big body, he’s strong and I don’t think he gets rattled. I like that about him. He proved to us and his teammates that he deserves the ball as a starter and in tight situations as a closer, so we’re excited he’s with us.”
Kopps was also impressed with the freshman from Roland, Okla.
“Um, a lot,” Kopps said of Wiggins. “Even though I expected that to happen from him a little bit. But still, watching him is pretty remarkable.”
Noland and Patrick Wicklander were key members of the staff last season, but neither got to pitch in Arlington. That will change during the upcoming four-game series against Southeast Missouri State.
“They’ll both pitch,” Van Horn said. “They may both start. We’ll make that decision here shortly. They’re definitely going to get the ball. We had Noland and Gray up there at the end and if it would have gotten a little bit dicey, we were going to bring in Noland, to be honest with you. Possibly Gray, but we were probably leaning towards the veteran there.”
While Van Horn was confident in his pitching staff heading into the three games in Texas, he admitted the combined four hits in the final two games probably exceeded his highest expectations.
“Well, I don’t expect two hits a game like we’ve had the last couple of days,” Van Horn said. “It’s been amazing. I just know that if they throw strikes and they get ahead of hitters, they’re tough because they’ve all got pitches they can get you out with. You have to have something to get them off your fastball and we’ve got a lot of guys with good secondary stuff. I think they think they’re good, we think they’re good and we just need to continue to work and figure out how to use these guys.”
Kopps also expressed his gratitude toward Van Horn for allowing him to pitch the ninth on Monday night. He had a very impressive eighth inning, but Arkansas also had several fresh arms in the bullpen.
“It meant a lot,” Kopps said. “I was excited to get the ball in a big situation like that. I need to build on it and prove myself. We have a big offense behind us, so it helps the pitching staff to more focus on themselves.”
Arkansas (3-0) will host Southeast Missouri State beginning at 3 p.m. Thursday at Baum-Walker Stadium. The Redhawks will bring a 2-1 record into the series. They defeated South Alabama 4-2, lost 6-5 and then won 8-6 in 10 innings on Sunday.