Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco’s first comment from Thursday’s postgame press conference summed it up nicely: “Just wow.” Wow captures the performance by junior right-hander Dylan DeLucia, who threw a four-hit shutout to beat Arkansas 2-0 and propel the Rebels into the College World Series best-of-3 final. Appropriately, DeLucia punched out the last batter, his seventh K of the day. Wow. The Rebels and the throng of UM fans at Charles Schwab Field went wild. “It’s amazing,” DeLucia said in a postgame interview on ESPN. “I don’t even have kind of words for it right now. It’s a blessing.” It was the eighth win of this remarkable season for DeLucia and the eighth win of this remarkable postseason for the Rebels. But pump the brakes for a minute. Eight is not enough. It’ll take two more to win the national title, to match archrival Mississippi State’s accomplishment from a year ago. Next up is Oklahoma, which is on a run essentially as amazing as the Rebels’. Unranked in preseason, pegged to finish fifth in the Big 12, OU went 15-9 in the league and won the conference tournament. The Sooners then took down Florida in Gainesville in the regionals, beat No. 4 national seed Virginia Tech in the Super Regional and stand 3-0 in Omaha with two wins over No. 5 seed Texas A&M. That deserves a wow. Led by Tanner Treadway (.488 in the NCAAs), OU can rake as well as Ole Miss. The Rebels might have an edge in arms: They have allowed just 2.2 runs per game in the NCAAs. Will that pitching hold up this weekend? The Rebels need two more W’s to put a final wow on this season.
There was magic in Omaha, where Ole Miss dispatched Arkansas 13-5 Monday night and is, to borrow a phrase from Hall of Famer Red Barber, sitting in the catbird seat at 2-0 in its bracket of the College World Series. Another strong start from Hunter Elliott, another home run from Tim Elko and a four-hit, four-run game from Justin Bench carried the Rebels to their seventh straight postseason victory. They are riding a wave that began on Selection Monday, when the NCAA handed them a regional bid that was far from certain. As coach Mike Bianco recently said, “When our name was called — I’ve been there for 21 of these and 18 times our name was called — I don’t remember any of those 18 times ever seeing that type of emotion from our team.”
Former Rebels star Lance Lynn, perhaps drawing on the Omaha vibe, went five innings (three runs) to launch the Chicago White Sox to an 8-7 win over Toronto. It was Lynn’s second start of 2022 after a long stint on the injured list. Former Mississippi State standout Kendall Graveman, who knows a little bit about Omaha (see 2013), also got in on the act for the White Sox, throwing a scoreless eighth inning for his 13th hold.
There was some magic, too, in Atlanta, where Orlando Arcia, one of the original Biloxi Shuckers, delivered a game-winning hit for the surging Braves, scoring pinch-runner Phil Gosselin, a Mississippi Braves star from 10 years ago, with the clincher in a 2-1 win against San Francisco. Arcia, the fill-in for Ozzie Albies at second base, is batting .338 this season with 13 RBIs and two walk-offs. Gosselin, called up when Albies was injured, was originally drafted by the Braves and bounced through six other organizations before returning this year.
Regardless of which school you root for, you have to be impressed by what the collective bunch has done in baseball. Ole Miss is going to the College World Series. Nineteen times in the last 66 years, Mississippi has sent one of its NCAA Division I schools to Omaha, with Mississippi State winning it all in 2021 in its 12th visit. It ain’t easy to get to Omaha. The postseason, starting with conference tournaments, is a grinder. Sixty-four teams get into the NCAAs; eight get to Omaha. Five No. 1 seeds didn’t get out of their regional this year. The overall No. 1 seed (Tennessee) just lost in the Super Regional. Southern Miss, a regional host, survived a five-game dogfight to advance but seemingly had nothing left for Ole Miss in the Hattiesburg Super Regional, failing to score a run in two games. So Ole Miss, which barely made the NCAA field after a mercurial regular season, is Omaha-bound as a regional 3-seed. This will be the Rebels’ sixth trip, second under Mike Bianco, the school’s all-time winningest coach who nevertheless has taken a lot of heat for his teams’ postseason shortcomings. But what’s past is past. Bianco’s current club may have caught lightning in a bottle this postseason. They’ve pitched. They’ve hit. They’ve won five straight, practically in a stroll. It figures to get tougher in Omaha, but would you bet against them? It’ll be interesting to see how UM fans turn out at the CWS. MSU fans took over the ballpark last year, playing a large role in the Bulldogs’ success. That first D-I natty was a big deal for the Magnolia State. Another would be no less special.
Back in April, which seems like such a long time ago, College World Series finalists Mississippi State and Vanderbilt hooked up in Nashville for an SEC series. The Commodores, behind the pitching of Ace 1A Kumar Rocker and the lesser known duo of Chris McElvain and Nick Maldonado, took two of three from the Bulldogs. Rocker pitched a three-hitter in the opener and McElvain and Maldonado provided stout relief in the rubber game in which State couldn’t hold an early 4-0 lead. State’s win in Game 2 was an eye-opener, as Will Bednar, with a big assist from Landon Sims, beat Vandy’s other ace, Jack Leiter, who hadn’t lost a game in his Vandy career. Rowdey Jordan and Logan Tanner homered off Leiter. The pitching matchups for the best-of-3 CWS finals, which start Monday, haven’t been announced, though it’s a good bet Leiter will start the opener. How much should be made of the April meeting? It can’t be totally dismissed, but, of course, the stakes are little different this week. And then there’s the atmosphere. The biggest crowd at Vandy’s Hawkins Field during the April series was 1,407, very few of them State fans. TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha will be a sea of maroon. Think it’ll make a difference?
William Carey brought one home in 1969. Delta State did it in 2004, Jones College in 2016. Mississippi State gets to try, try again this month to do what no NCAA Division I school from Mississippi has done before: Win a national title. Carey won the NAIA crown, DSU in NCAA D-II and Jones in NJCAA D-II. The Bulldogs earned their 12th trip to Omaha and the College World Series by spanking Notre Dame 11-7 Monday in Game 3 of the Starkville Super Regional before a crazy crowd at Dudy Noble Field. State can’t take that crowd to Omaha but will take SEC player of the year Tanner Allen, highly rated MLB draft prospect starters Will Bednar and Christian MacLeod and the hottest closer going, Landon Sims. State’s side of the CWS bracket includes No. 2 national seed Texas and No. 3 Tennessee. Vanderbilt, Arizona and Stanford lurk on the other side. Knock-down, drag-out battles should be expected. But the Bulldogs are one of eight with a chance. They’ve come close before, taking second in 2013 and third in 1985 with the Clark-Palmeiro-Brantley-Thigpen team that was probably the most talented the state has seen. Winning the last game of the season is tough. In the 2011 film “Moneyball” that was – and remains — Billy Beane’s great lament: “If you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a (flip).” That’s not entirely true. State has enjoyed another great ride in 2021. But if the Bulldogs do manage to win the last one, to bring home a “natty,” it’s hard to imagine what the celebration in Bulldog Nation would be like.
So, Ole Miss has to win three straight games to reach the College World Series championship round. Sounds like a piece of cake. After all, this club has posted eight streaks of three or more wins this season en route to its 47 victories. The Rebels won two straight do-or-die games against Louisiana-Lafayette in their Super Regional to get to the CWS. But the three straight wins the Rebels need now will have to come against TCU and Virginia, who happen to be the only two national seeds who made it to Omaha. UVA already has beaten Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to one hit in a 2-1 game on Sunday. The Rebels didn’t hit much more against Texas Tech in their second game, managing five in the 2-1 win. (One of the runs was unearned.) But they say all it takes is one big hit to get an offense going, and maybe the Rebels got that Tuesday from John Gatlin, who delivered the walk-off pinch single in the bottom of the ninth. Of course, up next, on Thursday, is TCU, which entered the CWS with a 2.19 ERA, best in the nation. Then UM must beat UVA, also rich in pitching, twice. So, sure, three in a row is doable for the Rebels, but it ain’t gonna be easy.
While perusing Baseball America’s preview of the Super Regional in Lafayette, La., a quote from an anonymous coach came leaping off the screen: “This is the team (Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco) has been waiting on. … If they’re going to win a national championship, this is the year they could do it.” That’s high praise. And the Rebels are very good, 44-18 and ranked sixth in the country. But Ole Miss has had a lot of good teams — and a lot of disappointment — since making its last College World Series visit, way back in the year of Olga Korbut and Fred Sanford and Thomas Eagleton, of Black September and “Thick as a Brick” and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Those references might not mean much to the current crop of Rebels, but they certainly know what a reference to 1972 means for UM baseball. Maybe this is the year they get over that hump. They have a legitimate ace in Chris Ellis (10-1, 2.16 ERA), who’ll start Game 1 against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday. Will Allen and Sikes Orvis have a combined 20 homers and 109 RBIs, and each has a slugging percentage over .500. Braxton Lee is a .294 hitter with 30 steals. Auston Bousfield, the Ferriss Trophy winner, is batting .349 with six homers, 48 RBIs and 17 bags. All that stands between Ole Miss and Omaha is UL-Lafayette. Which happens to be 57-8, ranked No. 1 and playing at home. Maybe the Ragin’ Cajuns are vulnerable. They did lose their regional opener to Jackson State. But then they won four straight after that, including two do-or-die games against Mississippi State. They’ll throw Austin Robichaux (7-3, 2.83) on Saturday. They have a lineup that features four starters with nine or more homers and four with 14 or more steals. Caleb Adams is a big-time hitter with a .387 average and 11 bombs. ULL’s trademark is aggression on the bases, and that never goes into a slump. “That’s a dangerous club, man,” a coach told Baseball America. If there is a favorite in this best-of-3, it’s hard to see. P.S. Four Mississippi junior college players made NJCAA Division II All-America teams, though none played for national runner-up Hinds Community College. Jones County JC, which spent much of the year at No. 1, had lefty Westin Stringer and catcher Tyler Graves make the second and third teams. Missisisppi Gulf Coast DH James Land made second team, and Northwest infielder Jay King was a third-team pick.