Kopps cements status as Arkansas legend in defeat
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FAYETTEVILLE — An hour after his season ended in heartbreaking fashion Sunday night, Kevin Kopps finally walked off the field for what was likely the last time in an Arkansas uniform.
The best pitcher in college baseball had just given up the ninth-inning home run that helped North Carolina State punch its ticket to Omaha with a 3-2 win, but he didn’t leave Baum-Walker Stadium until he had signed every autograph, taken every photo and shaken every hand.
It was a bittersweet moment for Kopps, whose dominant season has already earned him several awards and will likely bring in even more, but ended just shy of the College World Series. The last player to leave the field, he referenced a quote by Michael Jordan when asked why he stuck around so long.
“He’s talking about playing as hard as he can every game because it might be someone’s one and only game or chance to see you in person, so maybe that’s someone’s one and only chance to come watch a game,” Kopps said. “So I feel like it’s important to give back to the fans because they give so much to us.”
A sixth-year senior with a biomedical engineering degree in hand and MBA in the works, Kopps was named the SEC Pitcher of the Year and Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year before the postseason and has only added to his resume in the NCAA Tournament.
He’s considered a frontrunner for the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy, but when told of Kopps taking that much time with the fans, head coach Dave Van Horn smiles and talked about how he’s an “incredible person.”
“He’s going to be really successful in everything he does, anything he does, honestly,” Van Horn said. “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.”
That was not hyperbole by the Razorbacks’ veteran coach. Kopps pitched into the ninth inning in his first start of the season and finished with 118 pitches a day after throwing 21 and a weekend after throwing 185.
He was charged with three earned runs - with all of them coming on just two swings: a two-run homer by Jonny Butler and a solo shot by Jose Torres - on seven hits and three walks while striking out nine in eight innings.
“He's absolutely everything that you've heard about,” Avent said. “Sometimes you don't get what they describe, but he is everything - and some - of what you've heard about. He was incredible.”
Even though Kopps started, he still jogged from the bullpen to the mound at the start of the game as if he was entering in relief. It was an effort to treat the game the same as his previous 32 appearances.
The only thing different was an extra pregame talk with the doctor because of the heat, as it was 90 degrees at first pitch.
“I didn’t change any of my pregame routine or any prep like that,” Kopps said. “I got with Doc (Brad) Reeves a little bit just to be sure, since it was so hot outside, that I didn’t lose energy and that I was in a surplus of whatever I needed in my body.”
Outside of a shaky start, when he gave up a two-run home run and needed 57 pitches to get through the first three innings, and the ninth-inning home run, Kopps was as dominant as he’s been all year.
He needed the same number of pitches - 57 - to get through his next five innings, retiring 14 of 18 batters at one point.
“He is everything that's advertised,” Avent said. “If you look at what he did, he's been in relief all year, then he starts. I think that's very difficult to go from being a reliever and then to start a game. That's a whole different thing. I thought he was amazing.”
Even the Wolfpack players who managed to hit the ball out of the park against him had plenty of praise for Kopps, who had given up just three home runs in 81 2/3 innings coming into the game.
“He’s a phenomenal competitor, a phenomenal pitcher,” Torres said. “He’s the best of the best when it comes to college baseball pitching.”
What made Kopps so effective all season was a pitch that was hard to name. He called it a cutter, some called it a slider and pitching coach Matt Hobbs has jokingly called it ‘Steve.’ It was also the pitch Torres and Butler hit out.
“When he’s on and when he really gets that good pitch, gets some good spin on that thing, you can only hope to foul it off,” Butler said. “When he’s on, there’s not much you can do. You can just hope to fight it off.
“That’s what we tried to do, take a lot of pitches, see a lot of pitches, hopefully try to get him out of the game. We know he can go for 130, 140 pitches.”
With his valiant effort Sunday, Kopps’ ERA moved from 0.66 to 0.90, which still breaks the UA single-season record and will lead all of Division I regardless of what happens in the College World Series.
He also finished the year with single-season UA top-10 marks in wins (12, t-4th), saves (11, t-6th) and strikeouts (131, 3rd) while holding opponents to a .162 batting average and issuing only 18 walks in 89 2/3 innings.
“He’s a great baseball player and he made himself great,” Van Horn said. “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.”