HOOVER, Ala. — According to the scoreboard, the championship game of the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament was between the Rebels and Commodores. It was a little more like the Vanderbilt Tortoises versus the Ole Miss Hares.
Ole Miss jumped out to a 9-1 lead only to see Vandy chip away and chip away until the Commodores finished with a walk-off, 11-10 win.
(Click here for box score.)
After striking out six consecutive Commodores, Ole Miss pitcher Austin Miller issued two-out walks to Austin Martin, J.J. Bleday and Ethan Paul in the bottom of the ninth inning to load the bases. Rebels head coach Mike Bianco then went to the bullpen, sending Ryan Olenek to the mound. Phillip Clarke sent the first pitch he saw up the middle to score Martin with the tournament winner.
Miller took the loss to fall to 5-3, and Tyler Brown (3-1) earned the win.
As exciting as the end of the game was for Vanderbilt, the beginning was just as thrilling for the Rebels.
Vanderbilt starter Patrick Raby, the winningest pitcher in school history (31 victories), had a little trouble locating the strike zone early. After recording the first out in the first inning, he walked Grae Kessinger who soon stole second. Tyler Keenan followed by fouling off five pitches on his way to earning a walk that put runners on first and second.
Cole Zabowski had no intention of waiting for a walk. The junior singled to left center to score Kessinger and move Keenan to third to give the Rebs an early 1-0 lead.
— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) May 26, 2019
Keenan scored when Olenek hit into a fielder’s choice, and Zabowski moved to second on a throwing error by the Vandy third baseman. The Rebels were up 2-0 with two runners aboard. Raby rebounded to strike out Kevin Graham, but Cooper Johnson singled to right to drive in Zabowski and move Olenek to third, going the Rebs a 3-0 advantage.
Anthony Servideo earned the third walk of the inning and the Rebs had the bases loaded. Jacob Adams drew the fourth walk of the inning, and the Rebels took a 4-0 lead when Olenek walked in.
Raby was pulled after the free pass to Adams. He faced nine batters and threw 40 pitches (only 19 strikes). He only gave up two hits, but the walks chased him from the game.
Zach King came on in relief and Thomas Dillard greeted him with a two-run single to right, although the Oxford native was thrown out trying to advance to second which ended the inning.
After it was all said and done in the top of the first, Ole Miss had taken a 6-0 lead off three hits—despite sending 10 men to the plate.
Nothin' like a nice little six-piece in the first. Same time in the second?
— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) May 26, 2019
Junior pitcher Zack Phillips was the beneficiary of the offensive explosion, but he allowed a leadoff double to Austin Martin that got past Keenan at third. Martin moved to third on a groundout and Ethan Paul popped to left for the second out.
Phillip Clarke bounced to Zabowski to end the inning, stranding Martin at third.
After one complete, Ole Miss led the top seeded Commodores, 6-0.
Kessinger opened the second inning by sending a one-hopper to the fence for a leadoff double.
Pinch hitter Justin Bench followed by laying down a perfect sacrifice bunt to advance Kessinger to third. Kessinger had to hold on third when Zabowski hit a shot to Harrison Ray in the drawn-in Vandy infield for the second out.
Olenek followed by drawing a walk and the Rebs had runners on the corners. Ole Miss scored its seventh run in unconventional fashion. Olenek broke for second base, and the Commodore catcher threw the ball back to an unprepared King on the mound. The ball bounced off his torso and traveled far enough away to allow Kessinger to cross the plate and give the Rebels a 7-0 lead.
The Commodores got on the board in the bottom of the inning. Ray ripped a two-out double and scored when Ty Duvall sent a soft single to centerfield to cut the gap to 7-1.
Julian Infante followed with a single to put runners at first and second, but Martin flied out to Carl Gindl in right field to retire the side.
Servideo opened the third by drawing a one-out walk and Adams took a pitch in the shoulder to put runners on first and second. Dillard enticed yet another walk to load the bases for Ole Miss.
Kessinger remained hot by lacing a shot into left field to score Servideo and Adams to give the Rebels a 9-1 lead.
Jake Eder came on to pitch for Vandy and he got an easy out when Dillard bluffed stealing third—but Kessinger went to second. Dillard was then caught in no-man’s land for the second out. Gindl went down looking to end the frame with the Rebels leading, 9-1.
JJ Bleday opened the Vandy third with a walk and Paul blasted a ground-rule double to put Commodores on second and third with no outs. Clarke followed with a single to right to score Bleday and move Paul to third, closing the gap to 9-2.
Tyler Myers came on in relief and Pat DeMarco immediately hit into a double play, but Paul scored to cut the Ole Miss lead to 9-3. Stephen Scott followed with a single to right, but Myers got Ray to softly ground to second to quell the threat.
Vanderbilt was far from done, however.
The Commodores loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the fourth for Bleday who led the nation with 26 homers coming into the game. Myers kept the ball in the park, but Bleday did drill a sacrifice fly to cut the Ole Miss lead to 9-4.
Paul flied out to Servideo for the second out, but Clarke singled to center and Infante barely beat the throw to the plate to further slice into the lead, 9-5.
Then disaster struck.
DeMarco hit a liner that just had the height to get over the leftfield wall for a three-run shot and suddenly the Commodores trailed by just one, 9-8.
Ole Miss battled back to regain the momentum in the top of the fifth as Johnson opened the inning with a stand-up double. Servideo dropped down a sacrifice bunt, but the throw hit Servideo to allow him to reach first and let Johnson score to increase the lead to 10-8.
Eder responded by getting Adams to fly out before then fanning Dillard. Vandy finally found a solution to Kessinger as Eder got him swinging to end the inning.
To counter punch, Ray opened the Vandy half with his second double of the day. He advanced to third on Duvall’s groundout. With one out and a runner on third, the Rebels turned to Will Ethridge who entered the game for Fowler.
Infante soon scored Ray on an infield hit to again make it a one-run game, 10-9.
The Rebels got the second out on a fielder’s choice, but Bleday singled to left to keep Vanderbilt alive. The single by Bleday gave every Commodore in the lineup at least one hit in the game.
Etheridge got Paul to line to Kessinger to end the inning and preserve Ole Miss’ one-run lead.
But Vandy tied the game, 10-10, an inning later in the sixth.
With two outs, Scott reached on an error by Adams—and Ray soon made the Rebels pay. He ripped his third double of the game to score Scott, completing the Commodores’ comeback at the end of six innings.
In the top of the seventh, Johnson opened with a walk and Servideo chased him to second with a Texas leaguer to put two on with no one out. Adams moved each runner up a base with a sacrifice to bring up the top of the Ole Miss order with one out.
Dillard popped to Martin in foul territory for the second out, and Kessinger copied him by fouling to Martin—who had to make a lunging catch to avoid the rolled tarp—to end the Rebels’ attack.
Vandy looked to take the lead in the bottom half of the seventh as the Commodores put runners on the corners with two outs. But reliever Austin Miller was able to strike out Clarke to keep the game tied at 10-10.
Ole Miss got the lead run at second in the ninth inning when Johnson doubled. But Brown was able to strike out Servideo for the second out, and Adams flied to right to strand Johnson and set the stage for the Vandy heroics.
Coach Bianco was proud of his players and their run to the championship game.
“They gave it everything they could, everything they had, left it out in the field,” Bianco explained.
“The dugout on this team has played really well. I tell them all the time that losing stinks but I’m really just proud of the way not only that they played this week, but today as well.”
Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco
Cooper Johnson, who led the Rebels at the plate as he went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles, was asked about the Rebels’ rebounding from a six-game losing streak at the end of the season. “We talked about in the pregame meeting about how at some point something kind of switched,” he began.
“I’m not sure, I don’t think anyone is really sure, exactly when it flipped. We just started to play differently. We started to play differently, and we started to believe. We start to believe and anything can happen.“
Junior catcher Cooper Johnson
Junior left fielder Thomas Dillard, named to the All Tournament team along with closer Parker Caracci, expressed what the team was feeling.
“Nobody really expected us to be here,” Dillard said.
“It just showed the heart that our team has. We had to play six games in six days to get here. To jump out on a great Vanderbilt team like that, I think shows a lot about our team. I’m really proud of them. I think we fought as hard as we could. Made it to the last pitch of the game—just came up a little short but really proud of our team this week.”
Rebels earn right to host Oxford Regional
While many believed the Rebels had no chance to host an NCAA Tournament Regional this year, some felt there was an outside shot if the Rebels made it to the finals or won the SEC Tournament, they would have a chance at hosting the opening round in Oxford. In reality, few other than those clad in Ole Miss powder blue thought that would happen.
Fortunately, Bianco’s bunch put their heads down and went to work in Hoover, going 5-1 and placing themselves squarely in the hosting conversation. Shortly after 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the Rebels found out their hard work paid off as the NCAA Selection Committee awarded them a regional host site.
The other teams in the Oxford Regional, to be held May 31-June 3, will be announced Monday.
- Ole Miss fell to 37-24 on the season.
- The Rebels’ 19 runs in back-to-back championship games are the most for one school in the SEC Tournament since Alabama scored 27 in 1996 and 1997.
- The six-run first inning was the most runs Ole Miss had scored in one inning at the SEC Tournament since May 26, 2004 against South Carolina, when Stephen Head and the Rebels scored six in the eighth inning on the Gamecocks.
- Jordan Fowler made his first appearance since May 14 today in relief in just his ninth appearance all year.
- Will Ethridge made his first relief appearance all year today in the 5th inning. He worked as the Rebels’ go-to arm out of the bullpen in 2018, with 26 relief appearances a season ago.
- Cooper Johnson recorded just his third three-hit game of the season with a pair of doubles and a single today.
- The 7-seed Ole Miss knocked off three higher seeds en route to the finals.
- Vanderbilt and Ole Miss combined for the most runs since 1979 in the SEC Tournament Final with 21.
- Ole Miss tied an SEC Tournament record with six games played.