By Arnie Leshin
It was a real tear-jerker, but to Mike Bianco, it was worth taking off his eyes classes so the tears could flow.
Heck, he waited 21 years as head coach of the University of Mississippi baseball program, pieced together some marvelous seasons while in the Southeastern Conference, and now it was his chance to celebrate the school’s first national baseball championship. He probably also received a congratulations from state and SEC rival Mississippi State, which carried off the same trophy last year in Omaha, Neb.
Thus, the 4-2 win Sunday afternoon at Charles Schwab Field before a packed house of mostly seemingly Ole Miss supporters wrapped up a two-game sweep of Oklahoma in the best-of-three championship series that paired unseeded teams for the first time in 20 years.
“We really came together this post-season,” said the 54-year-old Bianco. “Heck, we went to Hattiesburg and knocked Southern Mississippi, the 11th seed off, we went to Coral Gables and did the same against Miami, the 7th-seed I think, so I’d say that was plenty good road work.”
Right coach, and don’t forget you were the last selected team for the field of 64, and did a mighty celebration that day when it was announced, and now you stand on top of the heap with a 38-23 overall record. You did it with a awesome effort from most of your experienced players such as senior first baseman Tim Elko, senior left fielder Justin Bench, senior leftfielder Kevin Graham, senior righthanded pitcher John Gaddis, who got the win when he came on in relief Sunday.
Gaddis took the mound in the midst of a wild late inning finish. It was scoreless in the seventh inning when righthanders Cade Horton of Oklahoma and Jack Dougherty of Mississippi dueled as the starters. Dougherty had pitched perfect ball until the sixth inning and Horton had 13 strikeouts when he was relieved in the eighth frame.
In the sixth, it appeared that the Sooners (45-22) had taken the lead that was overturned on what appeared to be a controversial call. With no out, Kendal Pettis singled past third. Next, Jerry Crooks swung and missed on a third strike, but the ball bounced off catcher Darin Dunhorst and he had to chase it and his throw to first bounded off the back knee of Crooks, went past the first base bag, and in came Pettis for the game’s first run.
But hold on, the Rebels challenged the call, said the baserunner interfered with the throw, and when it was overturned, it wiped out the run, called the runner out. The Oklahoma dugout went array, wasn’t happy with the call, said the baserunner sped legally down the baseline, but the call brought back the scoreless tie. The next batter though, first baseman Jackson Nicklaus, looped a base hit over the glove of shortstop Jason Gonzales, went to second on a wild pitch, and scored on John Spikeman’s bloop hit to left.
Now it was 1-0 Sooners. But in the bottom of the frame, the Rebels went in front 2-1 on singles from Kevin Graham and Calvin Harris, and both scored on Justin Branch’s double to left-center. After Oklahoma tied it at 2-2 in the top of the eighth, the last of the frame was costly for the Sooners. This despite Horton striking out the side the previous inning.
But now he began the frame by surrendering a single through the middle on his 98th pitch and out came head coach Skip Johnson to replace him with relief specialist Trevin Mitchell. But Mitchell didn’t have his usual control. He walked back-to-back hitters on full counts before striking out the next batter, then walking the next, but up came Graham who stroked a two-bagger down the line in left field and it was now 4-2 Ole Miss.
And that’s the way it ended. Against the Rebels reliever Elliott, Sooner batters had no answers. They were struck out twice in the eighth and then came up short on a fly ball to deep centerfield. In the ninth, Elliott got the initial out on a liner to left field, and then fanned the final two batters to bring the pile-on at the mound and a wild celebration. A long time waiting didn’t take long to gather the cheers.
It was also sparkling post-season for Oklahoma, but not these last two days. With only one senior, center Tanner Tradaway, on the roster, it lacked the game experience that Ole Miss had. This turned these two best-of-three game into a core of mistakes by Johnson’s team. It’s hitting was not what it had been in ousting 14th-seeded host Florida in the Gainesville Regionals, as well as eliminating 4th-seeded Virginia Tech in the Super Regionals it hosted in Blacksburg, Va.
It just wasn’t a good two days in the field either, and the base running wasn’t to be found when the batters couldn’t get on base when needed. The pitching was there, but the hitting didn’t support it. Next season could return eight starting players and several hurdlers. Oklahoma was in quest of being the first at a school to win both the softball and baseball championships the same season, which the Sooner women did just as the baseball World Series began.
It was also trying to get to its seventh national final, having won previous times in 1951 and 1994 and losing in 1960, 1961, 1980 and 1986.
Ole Miss graduates 10 players. It expects to return a dozen juniors, seven sophomores, nine freshmen and eight seniors. Oklahoma loses but one senior and is counting on the return of eight juniors, 16 sophomores, 13 freshman and three seniors.
The Most Valuable Player of the World Series was Mississippi pitcher Dylan DeLucia, who won two starts, one a route-going, the other seven innings. He was the savior when needed after the Rebels lost the first of the two against Arkansas, and then came back three days later to cool off the Hogs, 2-0, and advance his team to the best-of-three.
But for the Rebels and their fans, it was remarkable that back-to-back national championships were won by two of the state’s schools. Maybe Southern Miss next year? Well, that would even be more remarkable and Southern Mis was the top ranked of the three.
Oklahoma should find a way along the same road next time with this experience paving the way.
Seasonal statistics for both teams provided the balance each team achieved.
For Ole Miss, Elko batted .305, scored 63 times to go with 72 hits, clouted 24 home runs and batted in 75, had a 1,066 offensive batting percentage, played in all 65 games, came away with 154 total bases, walked 82 times and struck out 64 times.
Bench hit .317, tallied 63 times and had 80 hits to go with 17 doubles, as well as playing in all 65 starts.
Gonzales had a .265 batting average, 129 total hits, picked up four triples and 14 doubles, walked 50 times and played in all 65 games, and then there was Graham’s batting average at .335, he had 11 home runs and 51 RBI, while Keenan Alderman belted 11 homes runs and drove in 45 to go with his 14 stolen bases.
As for Oklahoma, Peyton Graham batted .339, scored 62 and had 77 hits, clouted 20 home runs and drove in 71. He had a 1,072 batting average percentage, totaled 78 bases, while Nicklaus hit .288, scored 48 times to go with 61 hits that included 11 home runs and 36 RBI, Crooks batted .306, came up with 38 hits and 31 runs, while Baker Robertson hit .303, came up with 69 walks and doubled 24 times, tallied 62 times and picked up 77 hits, and Wallace Clark batted .257, crossed the plated 31 times and had 38 hits.