OMAHA — Here we go: It’s Ole Miss vs. Arkansas. Loser goes home. Winner moves on to play for the National Championship.
The two Southeastern Conference Western Division rivals will play Thursday at 3 p.m., thanks to the Razorbacks’ nerve-wracking 3-2 victory over the Rebels Wednesday night.
After five days and 11 games of mostly blowouts in the 2022 College World Series, Arkansas and Ole Miss, two familiar combatants, played a nail-biter that went down to the final pitch with more than 25,000 fans nervously watching.
It was, as Mike Bianco said, “a tough one to lose.” It was, as Bianco also said, “a great college baseball game.”
So now Ole Miss find itself where it has been for weeks — that is, playing a game the Rebels have to win.
Said Peyton Chatagnier, the Rebs’ second baseman: “We’ve been in this situation for a while now … I can’t promise you the outcome of tomorrow’s game, but I can guarantee you we’re not scared. We’re not going to back down. This is nothing new to us.”
The Rebels got the pitching they needed Tuesday night. Hitting was a different story. Three Arkansas left-handers — Hagen Smith, Evan Taylor and Zack Morris — limited the Rebels to just five hits and the two runs, negating outstanding pitching from the Rebels’ John Gaddis, Jack Washburn and Jack Dougherty.
Problems with left-handers are nothing new for the Rebels, who came into the game hitting .241 against lefties, compared to .294 against right-handers.
But on that front, there may be some good news following this tough night for the Rebels: Arkansas ace Connor Noland, who will start Thursday, is right-handed. Ole Miss beat him 6-4 at Fayetteville back in late April, although Noland pitched well allowing four runs over eight innings. Noland went 7.2 innings in the Razorbacks’ 17-2 victory over 3-seed Stanford on Saturday.
The Rebels will counter with an ace of their own, right-hander Dylan DeLucia, who beat Noland in that game back in April and who has been lights out for the Rebels in the postseason.
Said Bianco, “If you had asked four or five months ago in February, would you like this opportunity to have your ace on the mound in a winner-take-all game to get you in the Championship Series, everybody would have said, ‘Yes.’”
Bianco, again: “So rather than look at what happened tonight, I think the thing is to flush this and to look forward to tomorrow with an opportunity to win and be one of the last two teams competing for the National Championship. So rather than woe is us, how about looking at what a great opportunity we have tomorrow?”
Duty dictates we take at least a brief look at what did happen Wednesday night, which was a largely unexpected pitchers’ duel.
Arkansas took the lead with Chris Lanzilli’s second inning solo homer, which barely got out of the park. Ole Miss countered in the bottom of the second with Kemp Alderman’s no-doubt homer. If Alderman clobbered his, then Arkansas’ Bradly Slavens slobber-knocked his fifth inning home run that traveled 436 feet over the center field wall and was hit in to a slight breeze.
Those two Arkansas home runs were all Ole Miss starter John Gaddis allowed in five innings,
Arkansas got what proved to be the winning run in the eighth inning amid some controversy. Cayden Wallace smashed a drive that almost took the glove off Ole Miss third baseman Garrett Wood. Wallace never checked up at first. Meanwhile, Wood retrieved the ball in shallow left field and threw a strike to Chatagnier, who swipe-tagged Wallace, who slid head-first into second.
The call on the field was safe. Ole Miss asked for a review. After a two-minute stoppage, the call on the field was upheld. It could have gone either way. Wallace then scored on catcher Michael Turner’s single.
Asked about the call after the game, Bianco said, “That’s why they have replay. … We thought that Peyton tagged possibly the finger, but again, they got, I think, 22 cameras, and they’ve got people, and they see different views than we do on the board. I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment on a call. They do a great job out there. This is about as smooth as you can do it with instant replay.”
The Hogs led 3-1 going into the bottom of the ninth when the Rebels loaded the bases with nobody out on Alderman’s single (his third hit of the night) and then two hit batters.
But Morris then struck out pinch hitter Hayden Leatherwood and got TJ McCants on a shallow fly ball to left field. With two outs, dependable Justin Bench hit a run-scoring, infield single to make it 3-2.
Jacob Gonzalez then flew out to left field to end the game. The Rebels have thrived on timely hitting in the postseason, but not this night.
“Again, it’s disappointing, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, we have a chance to win it,” Bianco said. “That will take a little time to get over tonight.
“But I would think that everybody, besides what you’ve been through, this is what you play for,” Bianco continued. “Their backs are against the wall, too. They have to win, too. So this is really cool, and you should appreciate the opportunity and the moment and try and be at your best at that moment.”