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Will Ethridge, No. 6 Ole Miss cash in on opportunity with sweep of No. 19 Auburn

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco took a moment before Saturday’s game to reiterate the importance of an opportunity the Rebels hadn’t created for themselves all season. A sweep of Auburn would help No. 6 Ole Miss keep pace in its hunt for an SEC Western Division championship and a national seed for the NCAA Tournament with the regular season winding down.

A career-long relief outing from Will Ethridge helped make that a reality for the Rebels.

Ethridge allowed one run in 6 ⅔ innings, keeping No. 19 Auburn at bay long enough for the Rebels to turn an early deficit into a 10-3 rout at Oxford-University Stadium that resulted in their first sweep of the season and their third straight home sweep of the Tigers dating back to 2014. It’s the first clean weekend for the Rebels against a ranked team since sweeping UNC Wilmington in February 2017.

Ole Miss (39-13, 16-11 SEC) remained half a game back of Arkansas atop the Western Division standings and could draw even with the Razorbacks on Sunday should Arkansas lose to Texas A&M in that series finale. The Rebels will head to Arkansas State on Tuesday for their final midweek game before starting their last series before the SEC Tournament on Friday at Alabama, which owns the worst record in league play.

“Today (the message) was, ‘You have to show up today if you want a chance to win the West and keep a lot of the goals we have in place,” Bianco said. “And they did.”

It started with Ethridge, who inherited a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the second from James McArthur after McArthur allowed a leadoff home run to Will Holland and struggled to command any of his pitches from there.

He walked two in the first and allowed two hits in the second, including Holland’s RBI single, before his second walk of the inning ended his day after throwing just 25 of his 51 pitches for strikes. The junior right-hander has gone 4 ⅔ innings or fewer in four of his last five starts.

Ethridge limited the damage by getting back-to-back strikeouts of Auburn’s No. 3 and 4 hitters, Brett Wright and Edouard Julien, before Ole Miss chased Auburn freshman Tanner Burns with a three-spot in the second to take a 3-2 lead.

“(Ethridge) was terrific,” Bianco said. “The thing that won the game probably was coming in there in the second in a bases-loaded jam and getting two strikeouts right there in the middle of their lineup.”

Ethridge (3-1) settled in for the longest relief outing of his career, going an inning longer than the 5 ⅔ innings he logged against LSU on April 28. Auburn (35-17, 13-14) got to the sophomore for two hits in the fifth, including Brendan Venter’s tying RBI double, but Ethridge allowed just one other hit through the eighth and tallied a career-high 10 strikeouts. Ole Miss’ pitchers racked up 37 strikeouts in the series.

“You’ve just got to kind of treat it like a start,” Ethridge said. “Just go out there, keep putting up zeros and help your team win.

“The slider was really working today. I was really working on hitting my spots and getting some bad swings from those guys. Everything just worked out well.”

Ole Miss went ahead for good in the seventh on a solo home run from Tyler Keenan, who went 5-for-9 on the weekend with three extra-base hits and five RBIs. Grae Kessinger, Ryan Olenek and Anthony Servideo each had two hits. Kessinger, Chase Cockrell and Michael Fitzsimmons drove in two runs apiece.

Parker Caracci pitched the ninth despite it not being a save situation after spending most of the eighth getting warm before the Rebels blew it open with six more runs, finishing with eight of their 12 hits in their final two at-bats while going 6-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

“Ethridge came in and just shoved,” Keenan said. “He did what he was supposed to do, and the offense just stayed with it and kept grinding out at-bats.”