The last time Ole Miss hosted postseason baseball, the Rebels endured one of the worst days in program history.
They were the No. 4 national seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament after a four-month run in which they won a single-season-record-tying 48 games. Expectations couldn’t have been higher for their home regional last June. They were surely the championship-caliber team to return Ole Miss to Omaha, and they certainly played like it in their first two games, winning both. One more meant a berth in a Super Regional. They’d host that, too.
But Tennessee Tech, one of the most prolific offensive teams in the country, had other ideas.
Rain forced a Monday doubleheader. Ole Miss was swept, its season abruptly over. Head coach Mike Bianco couldn’t remember a tougher moment in his two-decades-plus in college baseball as a player and coach. Players struggled to find the words to describe what happened. They still do a year later.
“If it’s not the worst day in baseball I’ve been a part of, then it’s certainly one of them,” Ole Miss shortstop Grae Kessinger said. “Brutal Monday. I don’t even know if you asked anyone on that team what happened, I don’t know if anyone could put into words what happened. It was just one of those days. I think if you asked anyone, if the rain isn’t there that day and we didn’t have to play the doubleheader, we win one of those two.
“It was just a bad day.”
A win over Jacksonville State in the opening round of the 2019 Oxford Regional on Friday was never going to completely erase the bitter taste of last year. But, if nothing else, it could be the first chapter, or first page, of the sequel the Rebels hope is much, much better than the original.
Because the Rebels aren’t looking for redemption or a do-over. They’re a different team, even if many of the faces are the same. But for Kessinger and Thomas Dillard and Houston Roth and others — all members of the No. 1 recruiting class of 2016 — Omaha has been the goal, if not the assumption, since they stepped foot on campus. Anything short has always been considered, in a sense, a failure.
Of course, they had to get through the Gamecocks first. Jacksonville State was the first hurdle in their pursuit of their first Super Regional appearance in five years, the same year (2014) of their last trip to the College World Series since the 70s.
But the top-seeded Rebels, who are the No. 12 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, didn’t just clear No. 4 seed Jacksonville State. They ran roughshod over them. They bludgeoned the Gamecocks with 16 runs on 15 hits — including three home runs — in a 16-2 thrashing. All nine starters recorded at least one run and one hit. Eleven different Rebels had a hit. Junior right-handed starter and Rebel ace Will Ethridge pitched 7.0 innings and was only charged with two runs on three hits. He struck out three and walked none. At one point, he’d retired 20 Gamecocks in a row, his lone blemish a leadoff double by Tre Kirklin to open the game. He hasn't allowed a walk in his last 24 innings.
Ole Miss improved to 38-25 on the year. Jacksonville State fell to 37-22.
“I was running out to take the field and I got chills,” Ole Miss third baseman Tyler Keenan, who was responsible for one of the home runs, said. Keenan was one of four Rebels to notch at least two hits. He was 2 for 4 with two RBI and a run scored. He also walked.
“(Ole Miss fans) showed up for us and we showed up for them tonight. We’re going to try to keep it going.”
Ole Miss had a pair of five-run innings, the first of which, in the fifth, gave the Rebels a 10-1 lead. The five runs in the seventh all came with two outs. Cooper Johnson walked. Anthony Servideo and Jacob Adams each singled.
Then Thomas Dillard finally homered again — his 11th of the season. Dillard, now firmly entrenched atop the order, had two HRs in SEC play. He last went yard May 4 at LSU. His last home run at Swayze Field was March 20 in a win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
When his blast landed in the left-center bleachers, beer flew in the air from the student section, as it always does. The nearly 10,000 in attendance jumped to their feet. A celebration that started in the first was still going, long overdue.
Ole Miss has found itself the last two weeks — rediscovered, possibly, a bit of its 2018 form. The Rebels have won five of their last seven games dating back to the SEC Tournament; a drastic turnaround from their six losses in the final seven games of the regular season.
There are many more games to be played, and the competition only gets fiercer from here. Ole Miss was 15 for 37 (.405) at the plate as a team, compared to 3 for 30 (.100) for JSU. The Rebels had 10 hits in 18 at-bats (.556) with two outs and seven hits in 10 at-bats (.700) with runners in scoring position. They walked seven times and collected four extra-base hits. They needed only Taylor Broadway out of the bullpen. He went 2.0 innings and didn’t allow a run or a hit while striking out one of six batters.
Postseason baseball has returned to Swayze Field. And, for at least one night, the demons of the past were buried deep. Ole Miss plans to keep it that way, even if the scars never leave. And they never will. Unless one win turns into two Saturday when the Rebels take on No. 3 seed Clemson. And then two into three. And on and on.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise,” Bianco said of Friday night’s atmosphere. Announced attendance was 9,810. “They always seem to show up here. Just proud. Proud to be a part of this, a place where I don’t know if everybody knows it. There’s not many places like this in the country, that draws like this (and) puts 10,000 people in a baseball stadium. It was neat. The last weekend is what made this happen. Not only were the players rewarded, but the fans were rewarded.”
Moment That Mattered: Ole Miss didn’t take long to erase Jacksonville State’s 1-0 first-inning lead. The Rebels scored two runs after each of their first four batters reached in the bottom half, and they went on to score 10 unanswered runs, the big blow a towering two-run home run in the bottom of the third. Keenan turned on a first-pitch Garrett Farmer breaking ball and sent it to right field, clearing the foul pole and the student section situated well beyond the Ole Miss bullpen. Keenan bid for another home run — which would have been his 15th of the season — in the bottom of the fifth, but he fell just short of the 390 mark in center. Keenan’s availability for Jacksonville State was somewhat in doubt earlier this week. He hurt his shoulder on a slide in an 11-10 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament championship game. But he looked himself in the blowout, possibly the game-changer. His long ball added to his team-leading RBI total. He’s up to 62 to pace the team by a wide margin. Dillard is second with 51. Ole Miss picked up its 18th come-from-behind win of the season. The Rebels are now an 16-13 when their opponent scores first.
You’ve Got to See This: It was a rough night for Farmer, the Gamecocks’ right-handed ace. Farmer had totaled 104 strikeouts and 12 walks in his previous 100.2 innings. He had an OVC-leading 2.24 ERA. Ole Miss, though, proved relentless, plating 10 runs (five earned) on eight hits and four walks against him. He struck out six over 101 pitches. Farmer didn’t get much help from his defense, especially in the fifth inning. He picked up two quick outs, but an error on second baseman Devin Brown — one of two in the game for the Gamecocks — extended the inning. Ole Miss followed with four straight hits, including a full-count two-run home run by Anthony Servideo — the third of his career and second of the season — to end Farmer’s night. Servideo last homered April 26 against Texas A&M.
Did You Know? Kessinger was named an All-American by Collegiate Baseball and a finalist for the Brooks Wallace Award — given to the nation’s best shortstop — this week. The junior Ole Miss shortstop also earned first-team All-SEC honors and team MVP, as voted on by his teammates an coaches. He was a C Spire Ferriss Trophy finalist. In short, Kessinger has had an historical season. He entered the Oxford Regional with a .336 batting average. He’d scored 60 runs and driven in 46 while tallying 18 doubles, five home runs and 37 walks while striking out just 31 times in 250 at-bats. He’s second on the team in on-base percentage. He continued his strong work against Jacksonville State. Kessinger was 1 for 3 with a walk and three more runs scored to add to his team-leading tally. Kessinger now has 85 hits on the year, ranking 10th in school history. Should Ole Miss make a run to Omaha, he could push all-time hits leader Brian Pettway, who had 102 in 2005.
He Said It: “About the sixth inning, I was like, ‘Hey, I haven’t given up a hit. If I had just gotten that first guy out, I’d be rolling with a perfect game.’ But just kept filling up the strike zone, kept putting up zeroes. Kept pounding the zone.” — Ole Miss pitcher Will Ethridge
“I felt great. I knew I was going to play in this game. There was no way I was going to miss it. That (home run) ball off the bat felt really good. Felt good to get on the board for our team.” — Ole Miss third baseman Tyler Keenan
What’s Next: Ole Miss advances to the winner’s bracket to face No. 3 seed Clemson Saturday at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN3. The Tigers defeated No. 2 Illinois 8-4 in the early game on Friday. Illinois and Jacksonville State face elimination when the teams meet at noon. Ole Miss will oppose Clemson’s Mat Clark with LHP Doug Nikhazy. Nikhazy, a true freshman, is 7-3 with a 3.17 ERA. In his most recent start, he out-dueled Texas A&M ace John Doxakis in a 1-0 Ole Miss win in the SEC Tournament. Nikhazy went 8.0 innings and allowed three hits and no runs with two strikeouts. Clark, a 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore, gave up one run but nothing more in 7.1 innings of a 7-1 win over Louisville in the ACC Tournament. The crafty Clark — who’s found success more through his control and less through his mid-80s fastball — is 9-2 with a team-low 2.84 ERA. Ole Miss is hosting its ninth regional in program history. The Rebels last hosted in back-to-back regionals when they hosted four straight from 2004-07. They’ve hosted three out of the last four years.