For seven and a half innings, Nebraska played even with the top team in the country yet again. But a disastrous bottom of the eighth saw the Razorbacks score four runs to take a 6-2 win, ending the Huskers’ season at 34-14 in the Fayetteville regional of the NCAA baseball tournament.
“These guys played so hard,” Nebraska coach Will Bolt told the Husker Sports Network after the loss. “They played so together. They were so competitive. We went toe-to-toe here this weekend.
“We didn’t get the result that we wanted but I think everybody can see where we’re at and where we’re going.”
Nebraska took a 2-0 lead through three courtesy a Luke Roskam solo home run and a Jaxon Hallmark RBI groundout that drove in Mojo Haage. But that would be it for the Huskers coming across home plate as the nation’s best pitcher, Kevin Kopps, was on the hill.
With just two days off, Cade Povich got the start for Nebraska and threw a dandy through four innings. It was the fifth that saw the first Arkansas damage take place, as the Razorbacks got on the scoreboard with a Casey Opitz home run.
An inning later with Cam Wynne pitching, Robert Moore added a solo home run to tie the game.
The teams stayed even through seven as Kopps sat down 10 Huskers in a row. In the bottom of the eighth, disaster struck.
With Koty Frank on the mound and two outs, the strike zone disappeared. Frank threw seven consecutive balls, walking two Razorbacks. With two balls on another batter, Jake Bunz entered the game but threw two more balls to load the bases.
On a 1-0 count, a Bunz wild pitch scored a run to give Arkansas the 3-2 lead. The very next pitch was pounded over the left field fence for a three-run home run.
Kopp got two strikeouts and a fly-out to take the 6-2 win. The 7.0 innings and 89 pitches were career high for Kopp, who gave up just three hits while striking out eight.
The Razorbacks advance to the Super Regional round and will host North Carolina State next weekend. Nebraska heads into the offseason, having accomplished a Big Ten title and the first regional final appearance since 2007.
“The things that the boys poured into (this season), I think that’s something that you can really hold onto,” Bolt said. “What Husker Nation has always been about, and the state of Nebraska, is just hard work, just blue collar and just show up and get after it. I said that the first day that I got this job, that’s what I wanted people to say about our team.
“I can hold my head high today knowing that that’s what these guys did.”
Fayetteville Regional All-Tournament Team
MVP – Kevin Kopps, Arkansas
C – Griffin Everitt, Nebraska
1B – Luke Roskam, Nebraska
2b – Robert Moore, Arkansas
SS – Jalen Battles, Arkansas
3B – Brice Matthews, Nebraska
OF – Matt Goodheart, Arkansas
OF – Christian Franklin, Arkansas
OF – Joe Aker, Nebraska
DH – Charlie Welch, Arkansas
SP – Ryan Fischer, NJIT
SP – Patrick Wicklander, Arkansas
RP – Kevin Kopps, Arkansas
RP – Spencer Schwellenbach, Nebraska
Will Bolt, Nebraska head coach
Comfort coming into the regional: “I would say so. Especially after going through a season like this, like no other where we haven’t played a road game with more than just a handful of fans in the stands all year long. We went toe to toe with one of the best in their ballpark and there’s not many environments that are gonna be tougher to play in the country than this one. Just the heart of this team, what they’ve shown all year long is their not gonna get rattled by much.”
Looking ahead: “I think you can see what the best looks like when you come here. You see one of the best ballparks in the country, an unbelievable game day atmosphere. Just the way they support this team and obviously how talented Arkansas is and there’s a reason they’ve won every series in the SEC this year and are SEC champs. We’ve seen what the best looks like, so that’s a good start. Our guys have gotten pretty close here to getting to the next level, and got to a regional final for the first time in a number of years. We have to build on it. I think the future is certainly bright and the seniors and the upperclassmen have built a pretty solid foundation for what’s to come.”
On Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps' outing: “Pretty surprised. I’ve never seen anything like it and as long as I’ve been involved in college baseball, to have a guy that’s able to go out there and compete at such a high level in such an environment on this stage and to do it over and over again. There’s a reason he’s a national pitcher of the year. The guy is just, he was incredible today. Early on, I thought maybe he’s not as sharp from being a little tired, but I thought he just got better and better as the game went along and made big pitches. I thought maybe we had our shot there to get a two out hit in the fifth inning, he got off the field and that was it.”
Pitching options: “We talked about it last night when we got back to the hotel. Cade (Povich) wanted the ball and felt like we wanted a left-handed arm on the mound. We wanted to try and stay left-handed if we could, with him just throwing over 60 pitches on Friday we knew that would be a possibility if that happened if we got to Monday. We wanted to give him the ball. I thought he gave us everything he had. He got a little tired there at the end and unfortunately a couple of innings have gotten away from us the weekend and that was the difference in two losses. Just the walks and wild pitches.”
Cade Povich, Nebraska LHP
Pitching on short rest. “After the first game Friday, with my pitch count being so low it was kind of a thought that I might come back to one of these games, whether it was a relief or starting today. Yesterday’s, when that kind of started making headlines, I had a chance to come in relief last night if absolutely needed to. The dudes in the bullpen and our whole staff stuck it out and Schwelly (Spencer Schwellenbach) did an unreal job and then after the game Coach Bolt came up and asked if I wanted to throw the ball and I said ‘Absolutely.’ That’s kind of how it all came around.”
Fatigue. “Early on, I felt really good. I felt fresh and when you have the adrenaline, it’s such a big game to start. You’re not really thinking of all that. All that stuff makes the difference. I think towards the end; I mean I couldn’t tell you the last time I pitched on two days rest. I think that last inning I threw was kind of when I was leaving balls up and wasn’t really as sharp as I was and that started to play a factor.”
Weekend and program overall: “It’s a brotherhood. It’s gonna hurt for a little bit because this team is so special. The fact that we went from not being in the top six in the Big10 and being counted out by pretty much everybody and making our way through the losers bracket and beating Arkansas, making this game seven happen tonight. It’s been an honor to play with these guys and the ones that are moving on, they are going to be missed and I can’t thank them enough for everything that they’ve taught me and taught everybody else.” “It shows you that we’re here. We’re not going anywhere and I know Coach Bolt and the rest of the staff and the guys coming back, everybody is gonna be there. This won’t be forgotten. This feeling won’t be forgotten. I think the only way for this team is up. We’re here and we’re gonna be here for a while.”
Dave Van Horn, Arkansas head coach
Opening statement: “What an incredible game. Just a nail-biter. Two solo homers to tie that thing up. Christian Franklin has really been struggling at the plate but that at-bat he had, with two outs, I don’t know how many pitches he saw but he ended up drawing a walk and that got it going.”
“I think Charlie knew he just threw a wild pitch and that he would get a fastball and he got it, right down central and he hit it as hard as you can hit it. That’s the loudest I ever heard this stadium. I’ve been in some crazy games here but that was incredibly loud.”
“But obviously what a clutch performance by Kevin Kopps. He just kept fight in us and I felt like he just got better as the game went on. We thought we were going to let him go to the seventh, he wouldn’t let us take him out. He had a quick inning and goes back out for the eighth, we think ‘we’ll bring Wicklander in for the ninth.’ Then we scored those runs and Kevin said, ‘I’m going back out.’ What an incredible college pitcher.”
Impact of Charlie Welch: “I’ve been trying to figure out the lineup. Had Charlie in there yesterday, it didn’t go real well. Slavens not hitting right now. Franklin’s not seeing it very good. That’s the middle of our order. I told the coaches this morning that I was going to go with the guys that helped us win big games. I just said, ‘I’m going to bring Charlie in off the bench.’ I wanted to have a guy off the bench because I felt like Nebraska was going to just keep matching up after Povich was out of there. And we figured they were going to let him go until he showed them he couldn’t go anymore and he did a nice job early, he stuck it to us. Then when they brought that lefty in with the 2-0 count, I went down the steps and told Charlie, ‘If Casey gets on, you’re hitting.’ A couple pitches later, he was there and ready to go. He laid off a bad pitch and then you saw what he did to the next, he hit it as hard as you can hit it.”
On Nebraska pitcher Cade Povich and momentum shift with Opitz HR: “He was busting our right-handers in, which we expected but he was also pitching away a little more than we expected. He was spinning the breaking ball. He was getting ahead of every hitter. He had some quick innings. With Opitz, he had one home run headed into this game. Now we’ve seen Casey hit a bunch of balls out of here. But I haven’t seen him go down and hit a line drive, right-handed, that hard. It lit our dugout up. He said, ‘hey man, we’re only down one run,’ and for our dugout, what’s new? We’re always down one run in the middle of the game. It was normal territory. We felt like the momentum kind of switched over to our dugout a little bit. Then Kevin kept throwing up zeros, that’s what did it. We knew we were going to break out and Kevin gave us that opportunity.”
Defensive turnaround: “They made all the plays. We had a lot of ground balls, especially with Kevin on the mound. Nebraska had a couple fly balls to the outfield, they hit two or three balls that were hit pretty good. But they made all the plays, Battles had some really nice plays on some slow rollers and some choppers. I just really liked the way the infielders attacked the baseball and really handled it. Obviously not giving many extra bats was also big in winning the ball game.”
Charlie Welch, Arkansas PH
Game-winning at-bat: “I was looking for a fastball to hit the whole at-bat. He went ball one, then bounced one obviously to the backstop, letting Franklin score. I thought, since there had been 11 balls in a row, Coach Van Horn was going to give me the ‘take’ sign, so I looked down at him and asked if I had the green light and he nodded his head. I got what I was looking for, fastball right down the middle so…. hit it pretty well.”
Hitting with Kevin Kopps on the mound: “Any time Kevin gets on the mound, we know as a unit, an offensive group, that if we can get a lead then there’s a really, really good shot we’re going to win that game. As soon as he gets on the mound, it definitely gives us a boost in the box. To throw the amount of pitches that he threw today, the efficiency, and just getting quick outs and throwing up zeros, it’s good work.”
Feelings going into the Super Regional: “It’s unbelievable. My first year here. My first regional, and now we’re making it to supers…. it’s great. I mean, just truly blessed and thankful to be here.”
Kevin Kopps, Arkansas RHP
Expectations prior and postgame feelings: “I didn’t really have an idea how many [pitches] I had left in me. I started warming up yesterday in the ninth and I felt really good, so I had an idea that I would be feeling good today. I feel fine now. I didn’t really feel fatigued. I didn’t really have too many high-intensity pitches. I was going after it pretty well, but I was more focused on just hitting spots today. The more I throw, the better I feel.”
Performance as game went on: “That’s usually what happens if you look at my outings. If you look at my stats, my stuff usually starts getting better the more I throw and I start throwing harder and harder too.”