By Arnie Leshin
Go figure, it’s the Elite Eight vying for the 2022 NCAA Division I Baseball World Series championship and the four unseeded teams remaining have the advantage over the four seeds that are left.
This is very rare, but how it has shaped up since Friday’s first pitch at Omaha, Neb., at Charles Schwab Field. And that’s where it began when unseeded Oklahoma had a 13-8 hit parade over 5th-seeded Texas A & M in the opener of the doubleheader, and in the closer unseeded Notre Dame followed along by getting past 9th-seeded Texas, 7-3.
In day two on Saturday, the twin bill didn’t change its path as unseeded Arkansas pounded 2nd-seeded Stanford, 17-2, and in game two unseeded Ole Miss turned back No. 14th-seedef Auburn,
And just like that, Sunday’s opening game will unexpectedly oust one of the two state rivals when the Longhorns and Aggies clash. And while the loser packs up and heads home, the winner survives for another day in the double-elimination tournament.
Game two is a different story. Win or lose, the Sooners and Fighting Irish remain, but the victorious one jumps into the winner’s bracket.
The same on Monday with one less team. That’s when the opening game matches Stanford with Auburn, and only one can survive and that knocks out a second team. In game two, it’s the pairing of winners as Arkansas faces Ole Miss and both stay in the hunt, but the loser has to avoid a second loss.
This is rare, rarely happens, but that’s the way the ball bounces. It’s got fans shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders, but in different ways, for at this point Stanford (46-17), A & M (41-19), Texas (41-19), and Auburn (42-21) supporters are in dismay. They didn’t count on such a short stay, and it’s yet to occur, but right now it’s surprising Notre Dame (41-15), surprising Oklahoma (43-15), surprising Arkansas (42-19), and surprising Mississippi (36-22) crashing the party in the championship best-of-three series that starts June 25.
Last year’s champion was Mississippi State in a surprise over Vanderbilt. Now it’s it the state and Southeastern Conference rival Rebels following the same road. They have brought a quality core of pitching and have shut down the bats of 11th-seeded Southern Mississippi in the Super Regionals on the road, and the Tigers on Saturday in a back-to-back shutouts.
Also on Saturday, Arkansas made quick work of the Cardinal despite Stanford’s leading hurler, righthanded senior Alex Williams remarking before the game that he would match up his team’s pitching with any team in the field. But after his side in the top of the first got a solo home run from its lead-off batter and two singles off rival pitcher Connor Nolan, the Razorbacks got to Williams much quicker in the bottom of the inning with a 3-run home run, two singles and two doubles, and it was now 5-1.
Williams lasted until the bottom of the fourth, gave up seven runs and made 85 pitches. Nolan did better, retiring nine-straight batters, striking out five, yielding three hits, making 78 pitches and going 7 and 2/3rd innings. Stanford, with the 3rd-best earned run average in the country, was reached for six more runs in the second and didn’t make much of a threat.
For Arkansas, the big bats came from a 4-for-6 day from catcher Michael Turner, four RBI from first baseman Peyton Stovall, a bases-clearing double from third baseman Cayden Wallach, and home runs from right fielder Chris Lamalli and shortstop Jalen Battles. The mound win went to Nolan and Williams took the loss.
Suddenly Ole Miss showed up with super pitching. In conference play it was decent and lost some close games, six by a run, but now it pieced together a 7-0 zip thrown by junior southpaw Dan Yielding as he allowed only six hits and went the route while his team scored four times in the third, twice more in the fifth, and added an insurance run in the seventh as Patrick Dailey came up with his third hit of the game.
It was the same as the 5-0 triumph over Southern Mississippi when freshman righty Ed Murphy worked the first six innings, fanned seven and yielded three hits, with Yielding relieving in the seventh and senior Jack Johnson in the ninth.
But that’s the way the ball has bounced and it’s been quite unusual. To possibly think of the four seeds departing earlier than expected and the four unseeds hanging around with eyes on the championship trophy has not happened yet, but up to now it has certainly been a World Series of surprises.
One thing is for sure, Sunday’s opening contest will lose Texas A & M or Texas, and the closing one will keep Notre Dame and Oklahoma still in the hunt.