By Robert Wilson
Dylan DeLucia was feeding giraffes at the Omaha Zoo earlier this week. Thursday afternoon, the Ole Miss junior right-hander was feeding strikes to the Arkansas hitters at Charles Schwab Stadium.
DeLucia allowed only four hits, had seven strikeouts without a walk and pitched a complete game shutout for a 2-0 victory over Arkansas to send the Rebels to the national championship series in the College World Series in Omaha.
Ole Miss, 40-23, meets Big 12 Tournament champion Oklahoma, 45-22, in a best of three series for the national championship. Game 1 is Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN, Game 2 Sunday and, if necessary, Game 3 Monday. Ole Miss has never won a national baseball championship. Oklahoma has won two national baseball titles, in 1951 and 1994.
Both teams finished the season strong. Ole Miss has won 16 of its last 20 games, including eight of nine in the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma has won 18 of its last 23 games, including eight of 10 in the NCAA Tournament.
Ole Miss was the last at-large team to make the NCAA Tournament and went on the road to win the Coral Gables Regional and the Hattiesburg Super Regional. The Rebels were the No. 3 regional seed and defeated No. 6 national seed Miami in the regional and then defeated No. 11 national seed Southern Miss to reach the CWS. Oklahoma, like Ole Miss, went on the road and won. The Sooners were the No. 2 regional seed and won the Gainesville Regional, defeated No. 13 national seed Florida, then defeated No. 4 national seed Virginia Tech in the Blacksburg Super Regional.
Arkansas finished 46-21. Ole Miss defeated Arkansas 13-5 in the second round of the CWS, then lost to Arkansas 3-1 Wednesday night to force a second semifinal game Thursday afternoon. Ole Miss and Arkansas split six games this season.
DeLucia, who was pitching for Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Fla., last year, had one of the top pitching performances in Ole Miss history Thursday afternoon on college baseball’s biggest stage.
Said Ole Miss senior left fielder Kevin Graham: “What else can you say about this guy? The bigger the stage, the better he gets.”
DeLucia, who was in the bullpen to start the season, made his best start of the season and one of the best in Ole Miss history. On shortened rest – DeLucia threw 7 2/3 innings and had 114 pitches with 10 strikeouts and no walks in Saturday’s 5-1 victory over Auburn – he was dominating and showed determination, endurance, and willpower.
He threw 113 pitches Thursday afternoon. And was still throwing in the 90s in the ninth inning.
DeLucia’s shutout is the first by an SEC pitcher at the College World Series since LSU’s Brett Laxton in 1993.
“DeLucia’s performance was legendary,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “We’ve had some great pitching performances in the history of Ole Miss baseball, guys like (Lance) Lynn and (Drew) Pomeranz, and DeLucia’s was right up there with those. He was lights out today.”
“DeLucia didn’t give us a chance,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He didn’t walk anybody. We didn’t get a leadoff man on in nine innings. Not one time. It’s hard to score when you don’t get the leadoff man on.”
DeLucia had 19 first pitch strikes out of the 32 batters he faced.
“I attacked the zone,” said DeLucia, who improved to 8-2 this season. “I didn’t have command of fastball that well, but the slider was working, and we stuck with it. I saw those zeros going into the eighth and keep pitching.”
Arkansas had back-to-back singles with two outs in the first inning before DeLucia got the third out with a foul out to first baseman Tim Elko. That was the only time Arkansas had back-to-back hits. DeLucia retired the next eight batters before right fielder Chris Lanzilli got a single with two outs in the fourth before DeLucia struck out second baseman Robert Moore to end the inning. DeLucia retired the next eight batters before Moore reached on an infield single and Jalen Battles reached on a fielding error with one out in the seventh.
Bianco came out to talk to DeLucia like he did against Auburn to calm him down. It worked against Auburn, and it worked against Arkansas.
“We had some traffic that inning, so I went out there,” Bianco said. “I wasn’t going to take DeLucia out. I asked him if he was ok. He said he was fine. I wanted to check his emotions. Get him grounded.”
On the next pitch, DeLucia threw a slider and designated hitter Brady Slavens – who hit a 436-foot home run in Wednesday’s game, the longest homer in Charles Schwab Stadium’s 12-year history – grounded out to junior second baseman Peyton Chatagnier to end the inning. DeLucia retired the next six batters in order – four groundouts and two strikeouts – to complete his shutout. DeLucia struck out Linzilli swinging on a 1-2 count for the last out.
This shows how accurate DeLucia was Thursday. He threw 76 strikes and 37 balls, more than a 2 to 1 strike to ball ratio. And in the last two innings, DeLucia threw 16 strikes and five balls.
Although closers Josh Mallitz and Brandon Johnson were ready in the bullpen, Bianco let DeLucia finish.
“It was six up, six down,” Bianco said. “There was no reason to make a move. DeLucia was too good. He didn’t look like he was taxing. He was in total control.”
With two outs in the fourth inning, Graham doubled to right field to score third baseman Justin Bench, who had singled to open the inning, to give Ole Miss a 1-0 lead.
Then in the seventh, Elko and Graham lead off the inning with back-to-back singles. With one out, sophomore right fielder Calvin Harris – who Bianco moved up in the lineup Thursday from ninth to sixth – singled to score Elko for a 2-0 lead.
DeLucia’s shutout performance overshadowed another brilliant pitching performance by Arkansas senior right-hander Connor Noland. Noland allowed seven hits and two runs with seven strikeouts without a walk in eight innings. He had first pitch strikes to 21 of the 28 batters he faced and threw 59 strikes compared to 25 balls, better than a 2 to 1 ratio.
“It was ace vs ace,” DeLucia said. “I knew it was going to be a dogfight.”