Championship Sunday bound: Rebel bats come alive to advance to SEC Tournament finals

Published 3:37 pm Saturday, May 25, 2019

HOOVER, Ala. – Ole Miss baseball has been full of surprises on the diamond this year. The way they hit Georgia starter Emerson Hancock in Saturday’s 5-3 win to propel Ole Miss to the SEC Tournament Championship is right up there with the rest.

The Rebel struggles to hit the ball this week in Hoover were well documented. Ole Miss was hitting just 20 for 112 in the SEC Tournament (.178) and had scored just nine runs in their four games entering Saturday’s semifinals. Against All-SEC First-teamer Emerson Hancock, Ole Miss hit 6 for 16 (.375).

Hancock entered the day with the league-best ERA (1.31). Ole Miss hung three runs on him in 3.2 innings. For the day, Ole Miss recorded 11 hits, scoring five times.

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“I’m proud of the way our offense played today after struggling all weekend long and really the last few weeks,” said head coach Mike Bianco. “Against two future big leaguers we really competed offensively and had great at-bats.”

When Hancock left in the fourth, the story remained relatively stable. Tony Locey (10-1, 2.55 ERA) replaced Hancock on the mound, yet Ole Miss remained hot. Ole Miss put five runners on base in the fifth, scoring two off a home run from Grae Kessinger to go up 5-3.

“I got a fastball. I could’ve hit it earlier that at-bat. I missed it but I felt really good about my swing,” Kessinger said. “I just told myself I was going to get my foot down early and be on time for the fastball. I put a good swing on it, got it up, and it worked out well.”

A point that could have come back to haunt them, Ole Miss loaded the bases in the fifth with no outs following Kessinger’s homer, didn’t. Yet they got no runs out of the bases loaded situation. They didn’t need them.

Having already used their four standard starters earlier in the week, it was primary reliever Houston Roth on the bump from the start for Ole Miss. Roth, a junior, had made nine career starts for the Rebels so it wasn’t a completely foreign scenario.

Ole Miss got just about everything they could’ve asked out of Roth. Despite giving up two runs in the second inning to put Georgia up 2-0 early, the junior settled in to pitch 4.2 innings, allowing just four hits and three earned runs.

“Houston was tremendous. He gave us everything you’d want in day-five of a tournament after getting an inning of relief a few days ago,” Bianco said. “And everyone that followed was tremendous out of the bullpen.”

A reliever day from the start, the Rebels used five different arms in this one getting 4.1 innings of scoreless relief form four different guys. Parker Caracci picked up his third straight save, throwing the last four outs. Caracci got himself in a little bit of trouble, putting runners on second and third with just one out, but worked out of it beautifully.

For Caracci, that’s now saves in three straight games, tying the SEC Tournament record. A Rebel bullpen that’s had plenty of questions the past month has now looked really good at Hoover. In five games, Ole Miss has gotten 12.1 innings of relief pitching, having given up just one run.

Dealing with 90-plus-degree days and few clouds for five straight afternoon games now, Ole Miss lost Tyler Keenan in this game due to dehydration. Bianco said Keenan went to the emergency room and received two bags of IV-fluids. He did not say whether Keenan would be available tomorrow.

With the win, Ole Miss plays Sunday to defend their SEC Tournament title. Only twice this decade has a team gone from playing Tuesday to playing in the SEC Tournament championship. Only once, Mississippi State in 2012, has a team that played on Tuesday won the tournament. The last time a team repeated as champions was LSU in 2013 and 2014. Ole Miss will have a chance to add to the repeat list tomorrow afternoon, playing the winner of Vanderbilt and LSU at 2 p.m.