Arkansas beat writer evaluates Super Regional matchup with NC State
NC State will face No. 1 overall seed Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. in the college baseball Super Regionals with a spot in the College World Series on the line.
The Wolfpack (33-17, 19-14 ACC) won the Ruston Regional with a 3-0 record to advance to the three-game series with the Hogs.
The Razorbacks (49-11, 22-8 ACC) won the Fayetteville Regional with a 3-1 record in their own stadium. The Hogs also won the SEC Championship.
The Wolfpacker interviewed Arkansas beat writer Andrew Hutchinson of HawgBeat.com for a Q&A preview of the Razorbacks and their Super Regionals matchup with NC State.
You don't get a No. 1 overall seed without a successful season, and the 22-8 record in the SEC is quite impressive. Can you put Arkansas's season in perspective?
"They've beaten just about everybody. When the top-eight national seeds came out, it was Arkansas and seven other teams. Among those seven, Arkansas has a winning record against six of them this year. It's incredible. Starting out with Texas Tech, Texas and TCU in a little tournament in Arlington, Texas to begin the year.
"They won those three games and it made me think, 'Okay, maybe this team is pretty good.' I thought they were good, but I didn't know if they were going to be great. They've just kept on winning.
"There have been some close games along the way, even against some not-great teams like Auburn. They were really down this year, they lost 2-1 on that Friday night and then bounced back and had to win 6-5, 6-5 those next two days. One of them went to extras, and the other one they had to rally from down 5-0.
"They have 13 wins this year when they've trailed by three runs or more at any point in the game. They're just the team that refuses to lose. Yes, they're definitely beatable. You just got to get a very, very large lead and pray that you can hold it because they are a team that has proven they're going to be able to rally.
"In the first game of the regional last weekend, they were down 3-0 against NJIT, which is a team Arkansas should have been able to sleepwalk through and win. But they kind of struggled, that kind of woke them up and boom, next thing you know it's a seven-run inning and they're on top."
Relief pitcher Kevin Kopps's 0.68 ERA in 79.2 innings pitched jumps off the stat sheet. How much of the credit does he deserve for the success of the Razorbacks this season?
"You can honestly make the case that he should be the Golden Spikes Award Winner, and I've made that case. A reliever has never won that award, but if one is ever going to, it's going to be Kevin Kopps because what he has done is just absolutely unbelievable.
"The details of his journey is sheer insanity. He was not a heralded recruit coming out of high school. He redshirted when he came to Arkansas in his first year and usually you don't see guys redshirt and then have productive college careers at the SEC, ACC, Big 12 level, but he redshirted and had Tommy John surgery at one point.
"He's now a sixth-year senior, he's 24 years old, and he is having just an incredible year with video game numbers. This is a guy that will come in and pitch the last four innings of a game when Arkansas is down by one, they come back and win, then he gets the win. Last year, during the COVID-shortened season, he had an ERA of eight-point something. He stunk, to be quite honest.
"He was a guy that they were going to count on last year, he just didn't have enough. If the season had continued, I don't know how much more he would have pitched. He was an old guy that's got to figure it out. Sure enough, the pandemic gave him that opportunity.
"He switched from a four-seam to a two-seam grip, and that has just done wonders for him. It's added about eight to 10 inches of depth on his cutter-slider. He calls it a cutter, a lot of people call it a slider, call it whatever the hell you want it to, it's nasty. It's just completely befuddled hitters in the SEC all season, it's why he's got 120 strikeouts. Teams just don't barrel him up.
"In the Super Regional, you might see him in all three games depending on how much he throws. He threw 185 pitches in the regional. He pitched a couple innings on Friday against NJIT. He pitched the final four innings against Nebraska on Saturday. Didn't pitch in the loss on Sunday and then came out and threw seven scoreless to end Monday's game.
"It was one of the most incredible individual performances I've ever seen. He's definitely the guy that you don't want to see on the mound if you're NC State."
This Arkansas lineup doesn't lack power with over 100 home runs hit this season, but how does the Razorbacks offense look heading into the Super Regionals?
"Lately, they've been scoring runs by hitting the ball out of the park.
"That's what they did on Monday in the regional final against Nebraska. They had a couple of solo home runs that tied the game at two, scored a run on a wild pitch and then hit a three-run bomb that put them away. They hit five home runs in their 13-8 win over NJIT, that's what really carried them.
"Where they've really been good, when the offense has been clicking — which, it's been okay, it's been a couple of weeks since we've seen the offense work as efficient as it can — they're hitting singles, doubles, they don't steal a lot of bases, but this team would be very capable of stealing bases.
"They got a lot of athleticism and speed. They go first to third a lot, they take extra bases on flyouts, they do a lot of that kind of stuff. That's when they're clicking at their best.
"Lately, it's been the home run ball, and I would say that's a concern, however, eight of the nine guys in the starting lineup are more than capable of putting a ball out of the park at any time. The ninth guy is Casey Opitz, a tremendous defensive catcher, but he doesn't have a ton of power, although he hit one of the solo bombs on Monday, his second home run of the season. Any of those guys are capable of putting the ball out of the ballpark, and that's what makes them so dangerous."
If you're NC State, how do you win this three-game road series against Arkansas?
"They need to jump out to an early lead and don't take your foot off the throat. You have to keep going. If you're out 5-0, keep trying to add more runs because at some point they're going to bring in Kevin Kopps and at that point, you're probably not going to score much, if at all.
"Arkansas also has what I call the 'Kopps effect.' Anytime Arkansas brings Kopps in the game and it's either a tie game or maybe down a run, it always seems like the very next half-inning, Arkansas breaks through with a crooked number. They just keep scoring, and it's like they get this confidence with Kopps on the mound, even though he's pitching and he doesn't even touch a bat.
"But it seems to really lift Arkansas's offense up, so if you're going to pull off an upset, you've got to do it early, Score early and score often."