Notes and thoughts on the Rebels’ super regional loss at Arkansas …
At the risk of sounding coachspeak-ish I will start with this: “It’s not always the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best.”
This time the best team played the best and won the decisive third game and the Omaha trip that goes with it.
Arkansas routed Ole Miss 14-1 on Sunday, a finish that was surprising not in the fact that the Razorbacks won but for how lop-sided it was.
I thought Arkansas crushed the baseball all weekend. Even in a 13-5 Game 2 loss the Razorbacks had 12 hits. Doug Nikhazy, who became the Rebels’ best pitcher at the end of the year, made some good pitches and stranded a lot of those runners on base, but Arkansas hit the baseball, much like they did in Game 1 when they had 11 runs on 11 hits.
So it wasn’t surprising that Arkansas would hit the ball with Omaha on the line.
Arkansas began the series with a team batting average of .299 and with four players hitting .320 or better.
I was really impressed by designated hitter Matt Goodheart, a first-year junior college transfer, who went 6 for 14 with two doubles and a home run.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn had tweaked his batting order. It was different than when Ole Miss won two of three in March, and the Hogs were clearly comfortable and in a groove at home as they hit .327 for the series.
Given the pitching matchup of Game 1 with Isaiah Campbell going for the Razorbacks, I always thought the Rebels’ best chance to win the series – and a legitimate chance – was with wins in Games 2 and 3.
I was confident Nikhazy would give Ole Miss a chance to win, and he did just that.
After a split in the first two games it was going to fall on the Ole Miss hitters to keep pace with the Hogs, and they did not.
As confident as I was that Nikhazy would put the Rebels in position, I was confident that Arkansas would figure out Gunnar Hoglund.
I just didn’t think it would happen as fast. Neither did Mike Bianco, who really tried to stretch Hoglund, hoping he would make the pitch to get the Rebels out of the second inning down just 2-1, but in another example of two-strike hitting, something at which the Hogs excelled through the series, Trevor Ezell turned on a fastball and lined it into right field to score two runs and give the Hogs a 4-1 lead. That was a tone-setter.
Throughout the weekend Ole Miss pitchers struggled to put away the Hogs with two strikes. Arkansas batters did an excellent job of fouling off pitches until they saw something they thought they could work with.
That strategy was especially effective Saturday morning in Game 1 against Will Ethridge who was not able to adjust to a particularly small strike zone.
There were four hits in the Razorbacks’ four-run second inning Monday, and three of them were in two-strike counts.
A 4-1 deficit that early is not ideal, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the day had the Rebels had a true stopper to come in and shut things down.
That’s not what Austin Miller did, however.
Miller took over for Hoglund and allowed two inherited runners to score plus one of his one.
He would allow two more to score.
Parker Caracci struggled as well, and when the dust settled the Rebels’ two rested, A-list relievers had given up seven hits and eight runs – seven earned – in just 3 2/3 innings.
Game 3 was always going to be about hitting and trying to keep up with the Hogs, and the Rebels showed almost no pulse.
They had early success against Arkansas left-hander Patrick Wicklander, but at the first sign of trouble Van Horn got Wicklander out of the game and got the ball to Cody Scroggins.
It was a move that worked.
The Rebels got a run on two hits against Wicklander in the first, and when he showed a little wildness with an HBP and a walk in the second, Van Horn turned to Scroggins, a veteran who has pitched a lot of innings this season but has done so with a 4.31 ERA.
If you’re an elite team with a chance to go to Omaha you’ve got to hit that guy, but the Rebels did not.
The best case scenario for Ole Miss was that a rested bullpen would slow down the Hogs to the point that maybe they scored eight runs, not 14, and that an experienced Ole Miss offense would hit enough to stay in the game and have a chance to win at the end.
The Rebels got neither the offense nor the pitching that they needed.
One pitching bright spot was Zack Phillips, who threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings to get the Rebels to the finish line.
I don’t want to take anything away from Phillips, a Texarkana native, but the Hogs had 14 runs by the time he entered the game. The intensity level was a little different.
It was interesting to note that Bianco, a by the book coach, started his right-handed bats, Knox Loposer and Tim Elko, against the left-hander Wicklander.
I understand what percentages say, but given the wind that was blowing at right I might have been inclined to let Kevin Graham and Jacob Adams bat on the chance that they could get some lift in that direction even off a lefty.
Ultimately, Wicklander was out of the game so quickly It didn’t matter. With Scroggins settling in Graham and Adams were inserted.
I wrote during the week about Elko, who was 5 for 7 in the regional, and how his improvement could be a plus. Maybe it will be next year. He got one at-bat against Wicklander and hit the ball hard, but right back at Wicklander for an easy out.
Loposer was hit by a pitch in his only plate appearance.
I saw someone in our Facebook Ole Miss group mention that good teams don’t go to Omaha, great teams do, an accurate statement, I believe.
The Rebels lacked the consistency to be great this season, to really inspire confidence from their fan base.
The same group that went 7-2 in the regular season against Arkansas, Texas A&M and LSU, the team that scored 40 runs and swept Florida, could only go 3-3 in six home games against Kentucky and Alabama, the two teams that failed to qualify for the SEC Tournament.
The same team that went on a six-day run to the SEC Tournament championship game had a couple of weeks earlier lost to Arkansas State and sometime before that North Alabama.
It was hard to wrap your mind around this team and believe in it. Even after an impressive pitching-fueled run through Hoover and after out-scoring the Oxford Regional field 41-7 there was, in the back of the mind, the nagging thought that this team could turn in a non-competitive game just one win from Omaha.
And it did.
That’s what happened. It happened because good teams don’t get to Omaha, the great ones do, and the great ones are more consistent than Ole Miss showed this season.