Tournament baseball is a different animal. White-knuckle moments are built in. But even then, you can’t anticipate the kind of high drama that Mississippi’s Big 3 experienced on Wednesday (and into the wee hours of today). Ole Miss, which can use some more wins, lost a late lead and fell in the SEC Tournament to Arkansas. Southern Miss, desperately needing more wins to make the NCAAs, pulled off a comeback for the ages in the C-USA Tournament against Rice. And Mississippi State, looking to pump up its NCAA Tournament resume, squandered an early lead, then rallied – twice – to beat LSU in the longest game in SEC tourney history. Ole Miss led 3-2 in the sixth inning at Hoover, Ala., fell behind 4-3, put the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the eighth but couldn’t get the clutch hit against Arkansas closer Matt Cronin. The Hogs won 5-3. At MGM Park in Biloxi, USM trailed 4-0 early, got a run in the seventh, three in the ninth to force extras and then won it 6-4 in the 10th on Matt Wallner’s walk-off home run. (You can almost feel Wallner’s MLB draft stock rising.) Back in Hoover for the SEC nightcap, State let an early 4-0 lead slip away, fell behind in the 16th inning, tied it and then won 6-5 in the 17th on a walk-off hit by Gunner Halter. The 6-hour, 43-minute emotional rollercoaster ended just after 3 this morning. Each of the Big 3 plays again today. There will be drama. That you can count on.
It’s not something that will be on his mind today in Hoover, Ala., but Ryan Rolison heads a list of six Mississippi-connected players in mlb.com’s latest Top 200 draft prospects chart. The Ole Miss left-hander, expected to start the SEC Tournament title game against LSU, checks in at No. 17. Brandon High’s J.T. Ginn, ranked as a pitcher, is No. 34, Mississippi State lefty Konnor Pilkington No. 61, Hattiesburg High outfielder Joe Gray No. 62, Southern Miss right-hander Nick Sandlin No. 164 and MSU outfielder Jake Mangum No. 180. Rolison’s stock actually has slipped a bit since the season began. Rated the top overall draft prospect by Perfect Game in preseason, he is 8-4 with a 3.87 ERA and has wobbled down the stretch. South Carolina put up 11 runs in 3 1/3 innings against Rolison on May 4 and, after shutting out Auburn for six innings in the SEC Tournament on Wednesday, he was chased in the seventh of a 9-3 loss. You can bet scouts will be paying close attention today in what will be a highly charged atmosphere at the Hoover Met. LSU is gunning for its 13th SEC title, Ole Miss its third. … Ginn, also a shortstop with pop and a State signee, went 5-1 with an 0.36 ERA for Brandon. Ole Miss signee Gray is a five-tool type who led Hattiesburg to the Class 5A state title. Mangum was drafted as a sophomore last year – 30th round by the New York Yankees – and opted to return to State, where has had another good year. … It’ll be interesting to see if former Ole Miss closer Dallas Woolfolk gets a call next month. After a stellar 2017 that put him on the draft charts, the big right-hander went off the rails this spring and was rarely used down the stretch before leaving the team in early May, citing his “personal health.” He had a 2.51 ERA and six saves in 16 appearances.
Whether momentum matters in sports is certainly subject to debate. In fact, whether it exists at all is questionable. But if it does exist, Jones County Junior College would appear to have it as the Bobcats move on to the NJCAA Division II World Series. Chris Kirtland’s club won three straight elimination games to capture the championship in the Region 23 Tournament. JCJC beat No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice twice in the regional. The Bobcats also snapped a three-game losing skid against MACJC champion East Central with a win on Saturday and then beat the Warriors again Sunday. In Sunday’s 6-5 title clincher, Mason Strickland, a freshman out of South Jones High, worked 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of starter Logan Robbins. Strickland beat LSU-E on Thursday to improve to 10-0; Sunday’s save was his first. Mason Irby, Erick Hoard, Fred Franklin and Tanner Huddleston supplied big hits. So with Big Mo now seemingly on its side, Jones (49-8 and ranked third in the latest D-II poll) plays McHenry College of Illinois on Saturday in Enid, Okla. Delta State appeared to have some momentum last week when it beat top-seeded Tampa for its second straight win in the NCAA Division II South Region Tournament and sixth straight W overall. But DSU’s mo then got derailed by Nova Southeastern in a 9-4 loss. A 13-5 victory against West Georgia on Sunday – fueled by Brandon Cummins’ three-hit, two-RBI game — kept the Statesmen (41-16) alive, but they’ll have to beat Nova twice today to claim the region title and make the D-II World Series. With 11 straight wins and an SEC regular season championship in tow, Mississippi State would seem to be riding a huge wave of momentum into the SEC Tournament. Ole Miss might have picked up a little mo, too, by beating Texas A&M in the regular season finale, denying the Aggies a share of the SEC title. But also in Hoover, Ala., this week are five other teams ranked in the top 12 of Baseball America’s most recent poll. Pitching depth might be a tad more important than momentum in the SEC tourney. If there is a state school still playing that would appear to lack momentum, it’s Southern Miss, which lost its last three C-USA games at Florida International and slipped to the third seed in the conference tournament. But, the tournament is in Hattiesburg, and the Golden Eagles are 24-4 in the friendly confines of Taylor Park. Comfort might matter more than momentum – if any such thing really exists.
It’s time for a Mississippi State flashback. The Bulldogs are SEC regular season champions for the first time since 1989. Yes, current State coach John Cohen was a player on that team, along with a host of others who surely hold a special place in the memory bank of Bulldog Nation. The ’89 team, which won 54 games under Ron Polk, had seven players picked in the MLB draft, including Pete Young, Jody Hurst, Richie Grayum, Barry Winford, Brad Hildreth, Bobby Reed and Jon Shave. (Reed and Shave returned to school.) Tommy Raffo, who went undrafted that year, led the Bulldogs with a .383 average, 22 homers and 80 RBIs. He was an All-America pick, along with Young, who played third base and closed. Raffo, Young, Hurst, Winford and Burke Masters made All-SEC. Reed, the staff ace who went 12-3, somehow did not make the all-conference charts. The ’89 Bulldogs clinched the SEC title in one of the more memorable games in school history, a 28-16 pounding of Kentucky in which they blasted six home runs. Tracy Echols had six of the team’s 30 hits. (It was the Gorilla Ball era in college baseball.) State did not win the SEC Tournament, bowing out in three games, but did host an NCAA regional. The Bulldogs won four times before huge crowds at Dudy Noble Field but ultimately were eliminated by North Carolina, which beat them twice. The 2016 Bulldogs will take an 11-game win streak into the SEC Tournament, which figures to be an absolute war. Like the ’89 team, State is in good shape to host a regional regardless of what happens in Hoover, Ala.
Ole Miss needs to beat Alabama on Tuesday to stay alive in the SEC Tournament. Whether the Rebels need to beat Alabama to stay in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid is less clear. UM has won six of its last seven to get to 30-25 against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Still, a one-and-done performance in the SEC tourney at Hoover, Ala., might not look so good. The sixth-seeded Rebels will throw Scott Weathersby (4-1, 2.39 ERA), a recent addition to the rotation who got the last five outs in a 4-0 win over Alabama in Oxford in late April. Ole Miss took two of three from the Crimson Tide in that series, winning the opener 10-2 and losing the finale 13-4. The Tide (30-26) showed its offensive potential in that one, with 17 hits and seven two-out RBIs. … Southern Miss (35-16-1) has won 13 straight games to play its way into the NCAA regional picture and has a legitimate shot at winning the C-USA Tournament and claiming the automatic bid. USM is the 3-seed in the double-elimination event that it is hosting at Taylor Park in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles open Wednesday with UAB (30-24), which it beat two of three at “The Pete” in early April. In the rubber game of that series, James McMahon – the likely starter on Wednesday – got the W in the 3-2 victory with relief help from Luke Lowery and Cody Livingston. USM is flush with good arms. P.S. As we eagerly await today’s announcement of the 2015 Ferriss Trophy recipient, a check on last year’s winner, Auston Bousfield, shows the Ole Miss product batting .308 with a homer, 15 RBIs and 14 steals for Class A Lake Elsinore in the San Diego system. Bousfield was a fifth-round pick last June.
Only two Mississippi college teams are still standing after a generally rough weekend. Hinds Community College, the No. 1-ranked team in NJCAA Division II, was eliminated Saturday night in the Region 23 championship round by No. 2 LSU-Eunice. The Eagles (43-7) lost twice to the host Bengals in the regional. East Mississippi Community College went 2-and-out in the tournament, and Northwest Mississippi was flushed in its third game, losing an elimination game to Hinds on Saturday. Meanwhile, Mississippi State’s season ended with a whimper as the Bulldogs lost three straight to Tennessee, which claimed the 12th and final berth in the SEC Tournament. Jackson State and Alcorn State bowed out Friday in the SWAC Tournament, where both went 1-2. Millsaps, after winning its opener on Thursday, went down (and out) twice on Friday in the NCAA Division III West Regional. Still playing are Southern Miss, which will take a 13-game winning streak into its Conference USA Tournament opener against UAB on Wednesday at Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, and Ole Miss, which has won six of seven heading into an SEC Tournament clash with Alabama on Tuesday in Hoover, Ala.