By Billy Watkins
If they hadn’t before, college baseball fans around the country are figuring out that Ole Miss is no fluke.
They belonged on the winning end of a 2-0 loser-go-home showdown Thursday against Arkansas.
And they belong opposite Oklahoma in the College World Series finals, a best-of-three matchup beginning Saturday night in Omaha.
Five days after throwing 114 pitches in 7.2 innings in a victory over Auburn, junior right-hander Dylan Delucia allowed just five base runners Thursday afternoon while shutting out the Razorbacks..
Delucia was gritty and gutsy and determined to pitch until the Rebels had disposed of the Hogs. All you had to do was look at his eyes, glazed with intensity, and then watch him pound the strike zone with a moving low-90 mph fastball and a wicked slider.
“He didn’t give us a chance,” said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn.
The Razorbacks are really good. They won 46 games. They played hard, loose, confident.
Ole Miss matched it, and then some.
And that … that is what Ole Miss fans have wanted to see for years.
Over the past two decades, the Rebels were 7-10 in Regionals and 1-6 in Super Regionals, 0-3 at Swayze Field. In five of those Super Regionals, Ole Miss lost in the third game of a best-of-three.
In previous years, Ole Miss has seemed to play tight in the biggest games. Almost playing not to lose instead of playing to win, and there is a huge difference.
This team doesn’t appear afraid of anyone or any situation. This group seems comfortable laying it on the line and letting the chips fall.
Example: When Arkansas second baseman Robert Moore made an incredible diving stop of sophomore Kemp Alderman’s rocket of a ground ball, then jumped to his feet and threw him out, Alderman didn’t hang his head. Instead, he tipped his batting helmet to Moore.
Little things like that say so much about a team’s psyche.
Another example: After going a combined 0-for-6 with three strikeouts in the 3-2 loss to Arkansas Wednesday night, Kevin Graham and Calvin Harris drove in the only runs of the game Thursday.
And as much flak as head coach Mike Bianco has taken for the Rebels coming up short of Omaha so many times, he and his staff must be applauded for holding the team together when it was 7-14 in the SEC and 24-19 overall on May 1. A postseason invite seemed nearly impossible.
It would have been easy for the players to write off the season. A lot of fans were already making wish-lists for a new coach.
But look at Ole Miss now. The last team to get into the postseason tournament is 40-23 and two wins shy of a national championship.
And Bianco? He’s averaged 41 wins since taking over in 2001 and done so with class. It’s nice to see him smile at the postgame press conferences.
I wanted to know how such a turnaround could happen so I phoned Ron Polk, who took 23 teams to the NCAA postseason and eight teams to the College World Series (six at Mississippi State).
“First of all, I’ve always liked Mike,” Polk said.
“The talent on this team has been there. The first half of the season, they just weren’t feeling good about themselves and they started putting too much pressure on themselves, which happens in the SEC. You’re expected to win in this league. But it seems like Mike got his pitching staff straightened out and they took off. It happens.”
Polk said Ole Miss going on the road for the Regional (at Miami) and Super Regional (at Hattiesburg) was probably a blessing.
“As a coach, I didn’t mind playing on the road in the postseason,” Polk said. “When you’re at home, you’ve got family, you’ve got ticket requests. Yeah, it’s nice to sleep in your own bed and all of that. But I think road teams have an advantage. Look at Notre Dame going into Knoxville and beating Tennessee.”
(Note: Home and road teams split the eight Super Regionals this season.)
“Playing at home, you’re talking about big crowds, the fans yelling at the kids ‘Get a hit! Get a hit!’ ” Polk said. “Well, you get tight and squeeze the bat a little tighter, pitchers are tense. They feel like they have to win. The kids don’t panic, they just play tight.
“But just like in (Ole Miss’) case, if you’ve got the talent and you start winning, your players relax, and then relax some more. And all of a sudden a team turns it around.
“I never talked to my teams about going to Omaha. I just talked to them about playing hard every day and letting things happen. We gave the players a scouting report and told them to do what they’d been doing all fall practice and all spring. If we win, great. If we don’t, tip your hat to the other team.”
Oklahoma is undefeated so far in Omaha. Its pitching staff is rested and in order. Its bats have been poppin’. The Sooners were relaxing Thursday while the Rebs and Hogs went at it. Logic would say Oklahoma has a nice advantage entering the finals.
But who could dare doubt this Ole Miss team now?
Maybe the Rebels win it, maybe they don’t. But these players — and how they’ve played — have changed the program, raised it to another level.
And, perhaps, still another.