The Rebels were given no time to experiment with lineups and iron out kinks following the Tim Elko knee injury on Monday. They faced #1 RazorBacon in a 3-game set this weekend. Friday’s game was moved to a doubleheader on Saturday because, well, every week seems to have some sort of scheduling change, but Game 3 stayed put on Sunday. Ole Miss dropped a home series (and subsequently dropped in the rankings), but Rebel fans deserve to be optimistic after they way the team played.
The absence of white hot Tim Elko was clearly a factor in Game 1. Ole Miss jumped out to an early 3-0 lead and Gunnar was being half-Gunnar (which is still better than a lot of teams’ Friday Night guys can be). He K’d up over a third of the batters he faced (8 Ks), but he walked 5 runners in 5.1 innings. Overall, he earned 2 runs and gave up 3 after a labor intensive 109 pitch outing. The bullpen was acceptable considering the caliber offense it was up against, but reliever Tyler Myers was pegged with the loss. It’s a shame you can’t pin a loss on a hitter though.
With Elko gone, some people thought red hot (a tick below white hot) LF Kevin Graham might take over at 1st Base and carry the torch. He was told to stay in Left, but he was given plenty of opportunities to assume the role of RBI King. His 2-5 with 1 RBI looks like a decent day on paper. What the paper doesn’t tell you though is that he came up with the bases loaded and 2 gone twice and struck out both times. When you lose 7-3, you would hope your best hitter could come through with a few RBI in those situations. In all, the Rebels left them loaded 3 times. That’s a ton. 13 men left on base in total means just 1 big hit could have made all the difference.
Not all was bad though. Hayden Dunhurst put himself in some rare company. The vast majority of players never get to go 5-5 in a game at any level, but Hayden did it here against the top ranked team in college ball. With Game 2 starting about an hour after Game 1, that performance was clearly on Coach Bianco’s mind. Dunhurst was moved from the 5-hole to the 4-hole (the spot that K’d twice with bases loaded in Game 1) in an attempt to spark the offense and even the series.
Doug Nikhazy was handed the ball for the Game 2 start and as we all know, Doug Day = Dub Day. Dougie did not disappoint in this one. It was certainly not the outing he will tell his grandkids about (5.2 inning, 7 hits, 4 runs, 2 earned), but it was a gritty performance that edged the nation’s top team in front of his own fans.
Drew McDaniel came in to relieve Doug in the 6th inning. He faced only 5 batters. Bianco did not want to mess around with this game and he called on his Closer for an 8 out save. Broadway ran into a little bit of trouble in his bid for his 8th save of the year, but the bats exploded with 5 runs of insurance in the 8th and he was credited the save.
The offense was much improved in Game 2. With the exception of McCants, everybody who came to bat got at least 1 hit for the Rebs in this one. Dunhurst picked up 3 RBI in his new 4-hole spot, but it was the other Hayden (Leatherwood) who came up with a big blast. All the pressure was put on Sunday and the Powder Blue jerseys to pick up a massive series win.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, the Powder Blue magic lasted through just the 1st inning. In the 2nd, Derek Diamond got tagged for 5 earned and put the Rebels way behind. Mallitz, who must be tired from all of his recent work, matched Diamond with 1.1 innings and 5 earned for himself. The Rebels were down 11-0 halfway through the 3rd.
A big bottom of the 3rd made the score at least respectable at 11-5. After that, the pitching started to throw a couple 0s on the board. When it looked like Ole Miss might actually have a rally in them, the Hogs tacked on 3 runs in the 6th. Ole Miss needed to respond in a big way, and the Powder Blue magic kicked back in. 5 runs in the 6th and 3 more in the 7th tied the game at 14 with just 2 innings left to play.
Unfortunately, a taxed bullpen just couldn’t possibly keep throwing up 0s and the Powder Blue magic ran dry. The 2 well timed homeruns couldn’t eclipse the 19(!!!!) free passes that Rebel pitching gave up. Arkansas scored 4 unanswered in the 8th and 9th to win the thriller 18-14.
Arkansas weekend is always huge for the Rebels. The rivalry implications and the caliber of teams each school trots on the field have elevated it to “must-watch baseball.” Without Tim Elko in the lineup, it is extremely impressive that the Rebels managed to stay that competitive through a 3-game set. The Rebs dropped in the rankings because Tim Elko isn’t coming back to them anytime soon and maybe not at all. The team that Ole Miss fielded this weekend was good enough to earn Baseball America’s 9 spot. There is plenty of time to sure up some lineup troubles (and MAYBE get their captain healthy) and they can improve on that ranking. A spot in the top 8 is what they are shooting for and they are in a great position to reclaim one of those spots.
Midweek games are important, so the Rebs need to take Austin Peay seriously this Tuesday. With that being said, the next big obstacle for them is a trip to the Dude. MissStake fans would love nothing more than to kick TSUN while they’re down and deliver them their third straight weekend series loss. For Ole Miss, if Moo U picks up a sweep, the focus will have to be switched to hosting a Regional instead of hosting a Super Regional. If Ole Miss can beat pesky (yet somehow incredibly good at baseball every year) little brother in one of the toughest environments in the country, the pollsters might move them back into that 8 for Omaha range.