By Robert Wilson
Ole Miss freshman right-hander Hunter Elliott said it best after the Rebels won their seventh consecutive game in the NCAA Tournament with a dominating, 13-5 victory over SEC West rival Arkansas Monday night in the College World Series.
Said Elliott: “Getting hot in a true thing in baseball.”
Ole Miss is the hottest team in the country right now, the only team that remains undefeated in the postseason.
This is how dominating the Rebels are. Their two closers – freshman Mason Nichols and junior Brandon Johnson – didn’t have to pitch but they hadn’t been since the Coral Gables Regional and Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said they needed the work.
“Even though it wasn’t a close game I wanted to get them in there,” Bianco said.
Elliott, once again, had a solid performance on the mound, going 6 1/3 innings, allowing six hits and one earned run. Nichols replaced Elliott and pitched a perfect 1 2/3 innings. Then Johnson came in in the ninth inning and finished the game. He allowed a two-run home run to Arkansas’ first baseman Peyton Stovall, the first earned runs the Ole Miss bullpen has given up in the entire NCAA Tournament.
“Hunter was terrific tonight,” Bianco said. “Just like he’s been in the second half of the season. He is a freshman on the biggest state in amateur baseball and he didn’t let it affect him. He knows how to pitch, work and grind.”
Said Elliott: “We are building a lot of momentum right now.”
Ole Miss improved to 39-23 and 2-0 in the CWS. The Rebels advance to Wednesday’s semifinals at 6 p.m. on ESPN and play the Auburn-Arkansas winner for a chance to reach the national championship series. The Auburn-Arkansas winner – the two teams play Tuesday at 6 p.m. on ESPN – must beat Ole Miss twice to make it to the national championship series.
This is only the second time Ole Miss has ever won the first two games in the CWS. The other time was in 1956 and the Rebels lost two straight games to finish 2-2 and tied for third place.
Arkansas had defeated Ole Miss two out of three games during the regular season in Fayetteville, but Monday night in Omaha, it was all Ole Miss.
Senior centerfielder and leadoff hitter Justin Bench had four hits – one double and three singles – and scored four runs with two runs batted in. Sophomore right fielder and No. 9 hitter Cliff Harris had three hits, including his second home run of the season, two runs and four RBIs. Senior first baseman and captain Tim Elko had two hits, including his 23rd home run of the season, adding to his school record for home runs in a single season. He now has 45 career home runs, three short of one of the oldest school records at Ole Miss, 48 set by Kyle Gordon from 1984-87.
Ole Miss scored two runs each in the first, second and third innings, four in the fifth and three in the eighth. The Rebels had 13 hits, the fifth straight game to have at least 10 hits and the sixth game in the seven NCAA Tournament games to have at least 10 hits. Only in the 2-1 win over Miami (five hits), Ole Miss did not reach double figures in hits.
“We are having some good at bats and been working with (hitting coach) Coach (Mike) Clement,” Bench said. “We are figuring out what each pitcher will bring.”
Also, Ole Miss walked 10 times.
“We didn’t pitch well, and they did,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Hunter had some quality innings, and they built up a big lead. Their whole lineup is hitting well. And they have a true ace (in Dylan DeLucia, who had the pitching victory in the opening round win over Auburn) and probably another ace in Hunter. And they have some veterans and are very confident and hard to beat.”
Bianco, in his 22nd season at Ole Miss, and Van Horn, in his 20th season at Arkansas, met for the 72nd time, the most by any two coaches in SEC history. Bianco now leads 41-31. Ron Polk of Mississippi State and Georgia and Skip Bertman of LSU did have the record with 66 meetings. Polk and Bertman rank first and second in victories as an SEC head coach. Bianco and Van Horn rank third and fifth, respectively.
“We’ve had some wars with them, obviously, over the years,” Bianco said of Van Horn. “Some we’ve won and some we haven’t, but I think it comes down to they’re really good and we’ve been good. When you put two teams together that are good, usually they’re pretty good baseball games. We respect them a ton and what Dave has done there is an amazing job over his tenure.”