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Ole Miss starts fast, holds off Arkansas to even series

Parker Caracci has emerged at the back end of Ole Miss’ bullpen this season with an ability to consistently fill up the zone with a slider that plays off a fastball that can reach into the high 90s.

So when Caracci uncorked a wild pitch against Carson Shaddy and eventually walked Arkansas’ nine-hole hitter on five pitches with Ole Miss nursing a two-run lead in the eighth inning Friday, Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco visited the mound to remind his hard-throwing right-hander of that.

“I think today was the first time all year he wasn’t as aggressive in the strike zone as he’s been this season,” Bianco said. “That was one of the messages when I went out to speak to him is you’ve got to let the ball go and not try to make the perfect pitch.”

Jax Biggers drew the Razorbacks within one with a sacrifice fly, but Caracci looked more like his more recent dominant self after that. He got an inning-ending flyout to strand the tying run at second before using a handful of 96 mile-per-hour heaters to strike out the side in the ninth, polishing off a six-out save that helped No. 4 Ole Miss hold on for a 5-4 win at Oxford-University Stadium.

The teams will play again Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in the rubber game of a top-5 series that’s been as competitive as expected given the rankings. Thursday’s opener was decided by two runs while the seventh-largest on-campus crowd (10,648) packed into Oxford-University Stadium to take in Friday’s game.

“They’re real good, and both clubs are good,” Bianco said. “Both clubs can hit and pitch, and when that happens, it just seems like there’s so much riding on every pitch. And there is. .. I’m sure it’s been two great games and entertaining for the fans.”

Ole Miss (24-4, 5-3 SEC) scored first for the first time in six games with Thomas Dillard’s two-out RBI single off left-hander Evan Lee in the first inning, traded a pair of runs with the Razorbacks (19-8, 5-3) in the second and extended their lead to 5-2 in the fifth on Nick Fortes’ two-run home run just over the left-field wall. Right-hander Brady Feigl scattered seven singles against an Arkansas lineup that had homered in 12 straight games and worked around four walks to limit the Razorbacks to those two runs in 5 ⅓ innings.

“You know who you’re playing. Arkansas has got one of the best lineups in the SEC and one of the best we’ll face all year,” Feigl said. “Looking at it coming in, we knew they hit well, but the biggest thing is we always preach we play ourselves in the game. It doesn’t matter who’s in the other dugout, you just play your own game and everything will take care of itself.”

Greer Holston relieved Feigl and allowed a run while striking out four in 1 ⅓ innings. Dallas Woolfolk came on and struck out Dominic Fletcher with a runner in scoring position to send the game to the eighth before Bianco summoned Caracci after a leadoff double from Jordan McFarland, who scored on Biggers’ sac fly.

Fortes threw out Shaddy trying to steal second, a crucial out with Eric Cole doubling four pitches later, before Caracci took care of the final four outs. Arkansas finished with 11 hits but went just 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

“It was really cool,” outfielder Ryan Olenek said. “They’re a great ball club, and that was a big win for us. We really battled it out. They tried to make it close, but we were just too good tonight.”