By Robert Wilson
Ole Miss was one hit away from reaching its first College World Series championship series in school history.
But Arkansas reliever Zack Morris got Ole Miss sophomore shortstop Jacob Gonzalez to fly out to left field with the bases loaded and two outs and Arkansas held on for a 3-2 victory Wednesday night in the CWS semifinals before 25,401 fans at Charles Schwab Stadium in Omaha.
The Arkansas win forces an elimination game Thursday at 3 p.m. on ESPN2 with the winner advancing to the championship series Saturday against Oklahoma. Ole Miss, 39-23, and Arkansas, 46-20, will be playing for the sixth time this season. Arkansas won two of three in the regular season series and Ole Miss won 13-5 in the second round of the CWS Monday.
Arkansas led 3-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Ole Miss sophomore designated hitter Kemp Alderman got his third hit of the game with a single to lead off the inning. Arkansas brought in freshman closer Brady Tygart – the only Mississippian on Arkansas roster from Lewisburg High who had team-high six saves – to finish off the Rebels. But Tygart hit Ole Miss junior second baseman Peyton Chatagnier and junior catcher Hayden Dunhurst to load the bases with no outs. Morris replaced Tygart and struck out pinch hitter Hayden Leatherwood (a .252 hitter) and pinch hitter TJ McCants (a .237 hitter) popped out to short left field, which almost resulted in an error because left fielder Zack Gregory and shortstop Jalen Battles ran into each other, and Gregory was able to hang onto the ball. But it was too short in left field for Chatagnier to score. Senior outfielder and leadoff hitter Justin Bench hit an infield single to shortstop to score Alderman to close the gap to 3-2. That brought up Gonzalez, a left-handed hitter who came in hitting .279 on the season. A base hit probably would score Chatagnier from third base and Dunhurst from second. On a 2-2 count, Gonzalez hit it hard to left field where Gregory hardly moved to catch the final out and send the series into tomorrow.
“It was a tough one to lose, especially when we had a chance to win it at the end,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “Credit to them. (Starting pitcher Hagen) Smith and (reliever Evan) Taylor were terrific and pitched well (they allowed only four hits and one run with 12 strikeouts in eight innings). It was a tough day. We’ve got to play better tomorrow.”
Although Ole Miss – which came into the game as one of the hottest hitting teams in the tournament with double figure hits in its last five games – was limited to only one run and three hits going into the ninth inning, a trio of Rebel pitchers kept the game close enough to be within striking distance in the ninth.
Senior left-hander John Gaddis, junior right-hander Jack Washburn, and sophomore right-hander Jack Dougherty allowed three runs and eight hits with 10 strikeouts. Gaddis, a graduate transfer from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi who hadn’t started a game since April 9, allowed four hits and two runs in five innings. Washburn, a transfer from Oregon State and son of former Anaheim Angels World Series winner Jarrod Washburn, allowed two hits and one run in two innings. Dougherty pitched the final two innings and allowed two hits and no runs.
Even though Ole Miss lost Wednesday night (the first loss after seven consecutive wins in the NCAA Tournament), Bianco is thankful the Rebels get another opportunity to keep its season alive.
“You’ve got to play well to win it and we’ve earned a right to play again since we won the first two,” Bianco said. “We’ve got our ace going and we are going flush this one tonight. We look forward to tomorrow to try to be the last two teams competing for a national championship. Instead of woe is me, it is a great opportunity to reach the national championship series tomorrow. Appreciate the opportunity and be the best in the moment.”
Thursday’s scheduled starting pitchers are the aces of both staffs, Ole Miss junior right-hander Dylan DeLucia (7-2, 4.07 earned run average and Arkansas senior right-hander Connor Nolan (8-5, 3.75 ERA).
Both DeLucia and Nolan had outstanding performances in earlier CWS wins. DeLucia threw a perfect game for the first 4 2/3 innings and allowed only four hits and one run with 10 strikeouts and no walks in 7 1/3 innings in a 5-1 victory over Auburn Saturday in the opening round. Nolan allowed six hits and two runs in 7 2/3 innings in a 17-2 victory over Stanford Saturday in the opening round.