Ole Miss may not play a non-Southeastern Conference West team until it reaches the College World Series championship series this weekend in Omaha, Nebraska, if it keeps winning.
The Rebels (38-22) play fellow SEC West member Arkansas (44-19) at 7 p.m. eastern Monday on ESPN after beating Auburn of the SEC West, 5-1, on Saturday. Auburn (42-21) kicks off World Series action Monday at 2 p.m. against Stanford (47-17) in an elimination game on ESPN.
Arkansas played a non-SEC team on Saturday – No. 2 national seed and Pac-12 champion Stanford – and destroyed The Cardinal, 17-2, with 21 hits – the most by Arkansas in a game since 2001. All nine Arkansas starters had at least two hits as the 21 hits also tied the CWS record for most hits by an SEC team.
Sometimes just leaving the SEC can be like a vacation. But that vacation may end for Arkansas as it returns to SEC play against Ole Miss, which is the only remaining undefeated team in NCAA Tournament play at 6-0.
“I didn’t know that,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.
The Rebels are 5-0 against non-SEC teams all on the road in the NCAA Tournament since losing their SEC Tournament play-in game, 3-1, to Vanderbilt on May 24 in Hoover, Alabama. Ole Miss also finished eighth overall in the SEC regular season at 14-16. The Rebels’ pitching staff flourished after leaving SEC play. It allowed its first run since the NCAA Regional title game on June 6 in Coral Gables, Florida, when Auburn managed to score in the seventh on Saturday.
Arkansas starting pitcher Connor Noland found non-SEC foes easier as well. He needed to throw only 79 pitches to get through seven and two-thirds innings against non-SEC Stanford on Saturday as he allowed two runs on six hits. He retired 10 straight to start the game and later retired eight in a row into the eighth inning for the win to go to 8-5.
The Razorbacks’ 15-run win was the most lopsided by an SEC team in College World Series history. It was also the first CWS win by any team by 15 runs or more since Arizona State beat Wichita State, 19-1, in 1988. The 21 hits by Arkansas tied for fifth most in a game in CWS history.
Meanwhile, a record fourth SEC West team in Omaha, Texas A&M, won an elimination game against No. 9 national seed Texas easily, 10-2, on Sunday. The Aggies (43-19) advance to play Notre Dame (41-16) at 2 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN in an elimination game. Notre Dame lost, 6-2, on Sunday night to Oklahoma (44-22), which next plays at 2 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN against the A&M-Notre Dame winner.
“There are a few teams from the SEC West here, and those coaches will all tell you that going through the league prepares you for anything you’re going to run into,” said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, who went 0-for-2 in the SEC Tournament last month and was hospitalized with food poisoning.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but you’ve seen it before – whether it’s a big-time lefty with velocity or a right-hander with a plus slider,” he said. “You’ve seen it.”
Arkansas lost, 5-0, to Stanford on Feb. 27 in a tournament in Round Rock, Texas, and obviously became a better team since then through the rigors of the SEC. The Razorbacks finished third overall in the league regular season at 18-12.
“We thought Stanford probably didn’t think we were very good, because we didn’t look very good that day,” Van Horn said. “But it’s all about us right now. We’re just trying to stay focused on what we can do and do well. If we do that, we’ve got a chance to win games here.”
Arkansas beat Ole Miss two out of three on April 29 through May 1 at Arkansas with 6-3 and 4-3 wins after a 4-2 loss.
Ole Miss freshman left-hander Hunter Elliott (4-3, 2.82 ERA) will start Monday night’s game against either sophomore right-hander Will McEntire (1-2, 2.81 ERA) or junior left-hander Zack Morris (6-0, 1.89 ERA).
“I think just keep playing baseball like we have been,” said Ole Miss left fielder Kevin Graham, who was 3-for-5 with a home run in the win over Auburn. “Just keep winning pitches and keep competing.”
The 5-0 run through non-SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament and 1-0 re-start against the SEC has happened largely because of the Rebels’ pitching.
“The most important factor in winning a baseball game,” Bianco said, echoing his mentor at LSU – coach Skip Bertman, who won five national championships between 1991-2000, “is dominant pitching.”
And he echoed him again.
“The second most important factor is the timely hit,” Bianco said. “The last three weeks or so, we’ve had some really big two-out hits. We’ve had some good fortune.”
But can it continue to last in the SEC West Tournament in Omaha?