The biggest story in Oxford this week was not the 2-game midweek sweep. It wasn’t the upcoming 3-game set with #1 Arkansas either. The biggest story in Oxford was Tim Elko’s knee.
The Rebels played against UNA on Monday. They jumped out early and led 10-0 after 2 innings. In the 4th inning, with Ole Miss on top 14-4, Tim Elko hit a ground ball to the right side. The throw was lousy and took the diving 1st baseman off the bag. When Elko saw that the ball had gotten by the 1st baseman, he immediately tried to avoid the fallen player and then cut towards 2nd base and stretch out an already insurmountable lead. Unfortunately, his knee turned on the play and he went down to the ground.
When it was all said and done, Josh Mallitz picked up a win, the Rebels struck for 20 runs on 15 hits, and Elko was the only starter who was held hitless (obviously a 4th inning exit didn’t help). The pitching staff wasn’t perfect in a game that was decided in only 7 innings, but that is not what concerned the Rebel faithful.
Tim Elko was down and the trainers were hinting at an ACL injury in the dugout. Elko isn’t just the team captain. He also was leading the entire conference in RBI, voted the National Hitter of the Month, and was the main source of the run scoring that a young pitching staff relied on. It wasn’t clear after the game exactly how severe the injury was, but it was assumed that he would miss, at the very least, the Tuesday game against Alcorn.
To nobody’s surprise, the lineup card for the game against Alcorn had a different name slotted for 1st base for the Rebs. Cael Baker assumed that role and went 1-4 in the game as the Rebels won 8-1. Jackson Kimbrell got the win, but there is nothing bad to be said about the start from McDaniel or the lockdown innings thrown by Forsyth, Miller, and Burton out of the pen.
The freshmen flexed their muscles at the plate as McCants and Gonzalez combined for 6 of the 9 Ole Miss hits in this one. Kevin Graham assumed the 4-hole left vacant by Elko and Peyton Chatagnier dropped to the 3 spot. The Rebs were far from perfect in this game, but they did manage to stretch their lead in the 6th and come away with a convincing win.
Other than a game that the fans were not 100% invested in, Tuesday was also host to the big news about Elko. Coach Bianco confirmed that Elko had torn his ACL and that he would be out for a while. Bianco hinted at the idea of Elko returning late in the season with the help of a knee brace if they push surgery back to the offseason. For that to happen, the captain needs to rehab his knee and be reevaluated in a few weeks. If Elko cannot come back, or if he comes back with measurably handicapped at bats, the Rebels chances at going to Omaha take a big hit.
Chatagnier got hurt right before the UCF series and the Ole Miss offense dropped in productivity. Chatty is a key piece to this offense, but nobody plays a bigger role for this team than Tim Elko does. With Arkansas coming to town this weekend, the pitching needs to be as crisp as ever and somebody else has to step up in big spots at the plate. Cael Baker was an instant star in 2020 when he played 1st and drove in a ton of runs. Now he is likely back at 1st in Elko’s absence. If he can recreate his magic from a year ago, the Rebels’ dreams will stay alive.
I hate to be negative about the future for the Rebels, but I did warn everybody something bad was eventually going to happen back in January. A true Rebel fan knows how often they are struck with hard luck and bad breaks. This team still has plenty of talented players and maybe they can grind their way to Omaha without Tim, but I wouldn’t wager my life savings on it. Who would have thought the team that might keep Ole Miss out of the College World Series might be the University of North Alabama?