Photo: Arkansas Razorback Baseball
Chicks still dig the long ball, and so do the No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks and their fans, too.
Thanks to three round-trippers, including a dramatic eighth-inning, three-run clout by pinch hitter Charlie Welch, the Razorbacks kept their season alive by topping the No. 19 Nebraska Cornhuskers, 6-2 in the elimination final Monday in the Fayetteville Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said the partisan crowd was as loud as he’s ever heard it once Welch broke the game open in the bottom of the Hogs four-run eighth inning.
Next up for the No. 1 Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. North Carolina State
When: 5 p.m. Friday, June 11
The Razorbacks (49-11) advance to this weekend’s Super Regional, again, at Baum-Walker Stadium where the Hogs will host North Carolina State in a three-game series for the right to return to the College World Series at Omaha, Neb., for the third time in a row.
Friday’s game will be a 5 p.m. on ESPNU. Saturday’s game will be at 2 p.m. on ESPN2. If necessary Sunday’s game will be at 5 p.m. on ESPN2 or ESPN News.
The Wolfpack (33-17) advanced to the Super Regional by whipping Alabama, 8-1, last Friday, and then defeating host Louisiana Tech, 8-3 on Saturday and 14-7 on Sunday.
All but one one of the Razorbacks’ six runs came as a result of home runs, on an evening when hits were hard to come by for the Hogs for the longest.
Hog fans were worried this storybook season might be coming to an anticlimactic end through seven innings of what was a pretty good pitching duel between Arkansas strongman Kevin Kopps and the Cornhuskers’ bullpen.
After throwing more than 90 combined pitches in the Hogs’ second and third games of the Regional, Kopps entered the game Monday in the third inning to halt the Cornhuskers (34-14) who jumped to a 2-0 lead with single runs in the second and third innings.
Arkansas fans who had been sitting on their hands most of the night as the Hogs struggled to figure out the Cornhuskers starter Cade Povich, who pitch 4 1/3 innings, exploded when senior catcher Casey Opitz belted his second home run of the season to draw the Razorbacks with 2-1 in the fifth inning.
Similarly, Robert Moore brought the crowd of 11,084 to their feet with his solo homer in the sixth to knot the game at 2.
All the while Kopps kept making short work of the Cornhuskers’ hitters, amazingly getting stronger as the night wore on. Kopps (12-0 with 11 saves) threw 185 pitches over the course of three appearances in the tournament, and was named Tournament MVP by the media.
Kopps’ endurance and mastery of Nebraska’s lineup gave his Hogs time to crack the Cornhusker’s bullpen open with their two-out rally in the eighth that started with a splendid, 10-pitch at-bat for struggling center fielder Christian Franklin.
Franklin went hitless for the night and was 0-for-9 against Nebraska in the Regional, but his two-out walk seeded what would be a huge payoff for the Hogs.
“Franklin had a tough series against us and that was a big at-bat there just to keep extending it and spoiling pitches and took a couple close ones,” Nebraska Coach Will Bolt said. “Probably took a lot out of [pitcher] Koty [Frank] there.”
Jake Bunz then entered the game for Nebraska and promptly loaded the bases, walking Moore and Opitz, to set the table for Welch, who came in to pinch hit against the lefty.
Bunz’ wild pitch to the backstop allowed Franklin to score from third and brought up Welch for his game-cinching, three-run clout over the left-field fence
“I think Charlie knew that [Bunz] just threw a wild pitch and he was probably going to get him a fastball, and he got it right down central, and he hit it just as hard as you can hit it,” Van Horn said. “That’s the loudest I’ve ever heard this stadium, and I’ve been in some crazy games here. But that was incredibly loud.”
Welch said he could feel the crowd rumbling through out his body as he made his way around the bases, calling the experience surreal.
Kopps, who made short work of the Cornhuskers in the ninth, said Welch’s clutch homer made it easier for him to finish the game.
“That was huge,” Kopps said “It’s relieving to score runs. …Charlie just blasted that ball into the seats. It really took all the momentum into our dugout and helped me settle down more.”
There have been many great homers hit in Baum-Walker Stadium at key times over the years, but the only one that comes to mind that topped Welch’s blast Monday night was Brady Toops’ ninth-inning grand-slam homer to do in Wichita State, 9-11, in the 2004 NCAA Regional. The Hogs whipped the Shockers again that evening in the nightcap to advance to the Super Regional.
That Razorback squad would then sweep Florida State the next weekend in the Super Regional at Fayetteville to advance to Arkansas’ first College World Series under Van Horn.
The three homers by Opitz, Moore, and Welch gave the Hogs a school record 102 home runs on the season and counting.
As great as the victory was, it had a bittersweet aftertaste for Van Horn, who coached Bolt at Nebraska during his stint as the Cornhuskers’ head coach from 1999-2002.
Van Horn said he doesn’t like coaching against him former assistants or players like Bolt, adding that’s why he won’t schedule Nebraska for a regular-season series.
The victory allowed the Razorbacks to join five other SEC squads — Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and LSU — in advancing to Super Regionals this weekend.
Mississippi State (43-15) is in its fifth straight Super Regional, the longest active streak, and will host No. 10 Notre Dame (33-11).
Ole Miss (44-20) got another big game from Tim Elko, who hit a grand slam and hit another of the Rebels’ five homers. The Rebels meet No. 5 national seed Arizona (43-15) in Super Regionals.
LSU (38-23) upended Oregon, 9-8, thanks to Gavin Dugas’ two homers to send the Tigers to an all-SEC Super Regional at No. 3 Tennessee (48-16).
Vanderbilt (43-15) hosts East Carolina this weekend after winning the Nashville Regional.