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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — With the best pitcher in college baseball growing stronger with each passing inning, Nebraska had no choice but to match zero after zero.
For almost eight full innings, the Huskers stared down the No. 1 national seed. Then they blinked.
A season sweeter than any that Nebraska has tasted in more than a decade ended with a cruel twist Monday night as the bullpen sputtered and Arkansas capitalized in a dramatic 6-2 victory in front of a Baum-Walker Stadium crowd that departed more relieved than thrilled. With the Huskers a strike away from taking a tie game into the ninth inning, they threw 10 straight balls before a wild pitch put the Hogs ahead and pinch hitter Charlie Welch blasted a three-run shot to left.
“These guys went toe to toe with the best,” Nebraska coach Will Bolt said. “They have nothing to hang their heads about.”
A superhuman effort by Kevin Kopps helped Arkansas (48-12) avoid becoming the fourth top overall seed to be eliminated in its own regional in 22 postseasons since the field expanded to 64 teams. The 24-year-old closer went the final seven innings and 90 pitches, bringing his weekend total to 185 pitches after scoreless appearances Friday and Saturday.
“Kevin kept throwing up zeros, man,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “That’s what did it.”
Husker baseball was back on the national stage Monday, pushing the No. 1 team in the country against the ropes on their own field. It hasn’t felt that way in a long, long time.
The Razorbacks move on to a super regional for a third straight postseason, while Nebraska fell agonizingly short of returning to that round for the first time since 2005.
The Huskers (34-14) were a dropped foul tip away from a 1-2-3 eighth inning in a 2-2 game. But Christian Franklin hung in — fouling off multiple pitches, including one off his foot — before drawing a walk against NU reliever Koty Frank. A four-pitch walk followed, then another that was split between Frank and Jake Bunz, who toed the mound for a third regional game. A run-scoring wild pitch to the backstop sent the sellout crowd of 11,084 into a frenzy, then Welch upped the decibel level on the next offering when he crushed a middle-middle fastball way out to left.
Expecting a take sign from Van Horn on 2-0, Welch instead got the green light.
Said Welch: “I hit it pretty well.”
Nebraska struck first against the SEC champs for a second straight night. Luke Roskam turned on a 96 mph fastball on the inside part of the plate on a 3-1 count and sent it caroming off a building beyond the right field bullpen. Just like that, the visitors led 1-0.
The Huskers knocked out true freshman starter Jaxon Wiggins in the third after Mojo Hagge and Logan Foster drew walks to open. Arkansas turned to Kopps, making his earliest appearance all spring, and Joe Acker sacrificed both runners into scoring position. Then Jaxon Hallmark, facing an 0-2 count, poked a grounder to the shortstop to push the lead to 2-0.
The Arkansas coach who took Nebraska to the College World Series twice in the early 2000s praised NU’s effort after Monday’s game. Certainly, he said, they didn't look like an ordinary No. 2 seed.
But Kopps settled in from there, shrugging off the heavy workload and keeping the Big Ten’s top-scoring lineup off balance the rest of the way. The righty looked the most mortal in the fifth when Foster and Hallmark singled to put runners at the corner with two outs before Kopps coaxed a grounder to the shortstop.
He retired 13 of the last 14 hitters he faced, only plunking Cam Chick with two outs in the ninth. Kopps allowed three hits and struck out eight while walking no one.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bolt said. “… To do it over and over and over again, I mean, there’s a reason he’s the national pitcher of the year. He was incredible today.”
Arkansas bats, meanwhile, spent four innings trying to catch up with Cade Povich, who allowed only a double and a walk through four innings coming off his abbreviated 64-pitch start Friday. Hogs senior Casey Opitz finally gave the partisan home crowd something to cheer about in the fifth when he smashed a 1-0 fastball into the Hog Pen in left.
After a one-out double by Jalen Battles and a walk, reliever Cam Wynne came on and produced two outs, a pop-up and flyout, on three pitches to preserve the lead. But it was short-lived, as Robert Moore took the Lincoln High grad deep to right on a 2-1 offering in the sixth, tying the game at two runs apiece.
A stare-down broke out from there. NU relievers Emmett Olson and Frank navigated a clean seventh before Frank, who was the Friday hero out of the bullpen in the comeback against Northeastern, nearly escaped with a 1-2-3 eighth before Arkansas rallied.
The black-topped Huskers embraced the role of the villain all weekend but lingered on the field afterward sharing hugs after a long team meeting in right field.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Povich said. “It’s going to hurt for a little bit because this team is so special.”
What the squad did, Bolt said, is get a taste for what the best can be. It won the Big Ten title by 3 1/2 games, then worked its way into its first regional final in 14 years and took down the Hogs 5-3 on Sunday night.
Much like the Nebraska teams of the early 2000s fell short before they eventually broke through to the College World Series, Bolt said a similar vibe is “tangible” within a program he took over two years ago.
“We’re going to be one of the hardest-working teams in the country,” he said. “… I think this is certainly a stepping stone here.”
As player and coach, Will Bolt and Dave Van Horn were so similar, some thought they could be related. Now the coaches of Nebraska and Arkansas could have a family reunion of sorts in the NCAA tournament.