I get that coaches are rightly fond of every team they coach for different reasons. But it’s awfully hard to imagine how Dave Van Horn doesn’t just beam like a proud dad every time his 2021 squad takes the field.
America’s consensus No. 1 team enters the Memorial Day weekend with a day of rest that it richly deserves. Up to 44-10 now after winning a long-anticipated duel with No. 3 Vanderbilt in the second game of the SEC Tournament Thursday, 6-4, the Hogs don’t have to do anything on Friday thanks to the double-elimination format of the opening rounds.
Except, of course, everyone knows this group has no desire to idle. The Razorbacks were the hottest team in the country throughout March. Then, they were again in April. There are three days of May left, and that distinction still stands at the moment. (I’d argue, as would most other observers, that even if the Hogs ducked quietly out of this perfunctory little exhibition in Hoover they’d still be the clear and present No. 1.
The best team in college baseball has been the one in Fayetteville from start to present, and Arkansas fans are dying for that to read “finish” by the time June is over. The Razorbacks patiently took apart Vanderbilt’s All-American gunslinger Kumar Rocker with a couple of typically savvy innings, undoing an early two-run hole and then taking control in the middle innings.
Obviously, that led to a Kevin Kopps appearance, something that inspired both a mixture of dread and awe for many: “Why are we taking a risk with the best pitcher in the country? Oh never mind, I want to see him mow these jokers down.”
Kopps absolutely thrives on the regular work. If he’s not stepping into the final third of a weekend game with something on the line, he’s simply not breathing at this point. And once he entered, all the SEC Network commentators, especially Kyle Peterson, began their now-familiar refrain of marveling at the senior’s cutting action for about the last half-hour of the broadcast.
This Hog team, typified by Kopps’ historic performance, is as fiendishly consistent as any I’ve seen in college baseball in the past decade. The lineup is so balanced that the “light-hitting” entrants end up being every bit as dangerous as the top-end guys because nobody wastes a pitch or fails to acknowledge a situation. Sure, in baseball, you’re going to falter in your execution a lot — the other pitcher, especially a heat-bringer like Rocker, will win many battle — but Arkansas tightens up as each game progresses. How do they own so many come-from-behind wins?
Simple. Instead of getting antsy as hell, they take pitches, advance runners, and recognize defensive shifts. They make no notable gaffes on the bases, often taking a base aggressively but never running into a foolhardy out. They are noteworthy for having been among the country’s home run leaders all year, but they also play station-to-station baseball as well as anyone in the country.
Is the starting pitching overwhelmingly great? No, but it carries out Matt Hobbs’ plan quite well most of the time. Patrick Wicklander lacked his best material against Rocker but still hung in long enough to pass matters over to that capable, sturdy pen. There are some holes there, too, but Caden Monke, Ryan Costeiu, Caleb Bolden, and Zeb Vermillion can and do still get most of the outs they need to obtain to provide Kopps with those high-leverage moments he craves.
Kopps has ten wins not only because he works for multiple innings at a time and happens to be on the bump when the bats get cooking, but also because he is the by-God same pitcher in any circumstance. Down a run or two, ahead three or more, fifth or ninth inning, nobody out or two down, the New Sugar Land Express always sizes up hitters quickly, twirls that cutter and slider as he sees fit, and stays locked in on whichever feeble-swinging victim is up.
That focus hasn’t drifted. Arkansas won every SEC series, a feat achieved only once before (Vandy, 2013), and racked up 22 wins to easily outstrip Van Horn’s personal single-season mark of 19. The Hogs didn’t even get the presumed benefit of playing Missouri, the league’s undisputed worst team. And it’s quite possibly the deepest league it’s ever been, top to bottom.
This SEC tourney is fun holiday weekend fare and all, and enjoy it for what it’s worth. June is the month that really matters.