HOOVER | Grae Kessinger could only be held down for so long.
No. 7 seed Ole Miss took on No. 3 seed Georgia Saturday in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. All Kessinger has done is hit in his junior season. He had 51 in conference play to lead the league. He had a 40-game reached-base streak from March 8 to May 14, the longest by a Rebel since Tanner Mathis (41) in 2011.
But Kessinger, the Rebels’ No. 2 hitter, entered the day 11 for his last 52 (.211). He was 1 for 13 for the tournament. Not that it mattered all that much. Ole Miss had won anyway — three of four, in fact, including two in a row. And despite his lack of success at the plate, Kessinger continued his stellar glove work at shortstop. He found other ways to contribute, and he stuck with his hitting process, too, knowing he’d be rewarded eventually.
His patience paid off against the Bulldogs.
Kessinger launched a two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning to break a 3-3 stalemate and proved decisive, as a surging Ole Miss pitching staff shut down the Bulldogs in a 5-3 Rebel win. The Rebels improved to 37-22 overall and 20-15 in SEC games. They’ll take on one of Vanderbilt or LSU in the title game Sunday at 2 p.m. CT on ESPN2.
“It definitely can get frustrating,” Kessinger said. “That’s just part of the game. For me, one thing that I’ve tried to focus on is getting my foot down early and getting ready to go. Facing some guys with (velocity), that kind of helps because you have to or you’re going to get one blown right by you.”
Kessinger hit the pull-side shot, his fifth home run of the year, off right-hander Tony Locey, the Bulldogs’ No. 2 starter who came on in relief of starter Emerson Hancock. Locey was 10-1 with a 2.55 ERA and features an overpowering fastball that tops out at 95, sometimes 96 miles per hour.
Kessinger had to work for it; he was late on a 2-0, center-cut fastball. But he wasn’t going to miss again, so when Locey kicked and delivered, he got the barrel to a well-placed fastball down and in and watched it sail away. He drove in Thomas Dillard, who’d led off with a base hit to right. Dillard is 7 for 18 (.388) for the tournament with three runs scored and four RBI. He’s bidding for his second straight All-SEC Tournament selection. Ole Miss has scored seven of its 14 runs in the SEC Tournament in the fifth inning.
“He’s such a pro as a college baseball player,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said of Kessinger. “He’s the guy that you can’t tell if he’s hitting .200 or .400. He plays the game the same way every single time. You respect that. There are so many kids that are so emotional, up and down. That’s why he’s so, so good and I think probably the best shortstop in the country, is because he plays the game that way. He’s been tremendous for us.”
Kessinger’s slump-busting day (a team-high-tying three hits in four at-bats with two RBI and a run scored) couldn’t have come at a better time. Ole Miss, through its pursuit of the second of what would be back-to-back SEC Tournament championships, has reentered the Regional host discussion.
The Rebels are the third team this decade that played on Tuesday of the tournament but made it all the way to the title game. Mississippi State was the last to win it from Tuesday, the Bulldogs pulling off the feat in 2012. The last repeat champion was LSU in 2013-14.
Both D1 Baseball and Baseball America bumped Ole Miss to a two-seed in Atlanta prior the Rebels’ win over Georgia. A win Sunday could secure their place as a host, despite an RPI ranking in the low-20s. Still, no SEC team with 20 wins has even been left out of hosting. Georgia was RPI No. 3 and is projected as the No. 4 national seed by D1 Baseball. The Bulldogs are 23-12 against the RPI Top 50. Ole Miss has the seventh-most quadrant one wins in the nation.
“I think the win today probably complicated it,” Bianco said. “I don’t know what the RPI will be, but when you start to look at a lot of different metrics, I think we lead the country in quadrant-one games. When you look at beating a national seed in Georgia, beating a national seed in Arkansas — we won four out of six against an Arkansas team we haven’t played at home but everybody’s convinced will be a national seed and I agree — there’s a lot to like about our team. It’s unfortunate we’re in that situation, but we kind of did that to ourselves. But we’ve made a lot of amends this week.”
“I certainly think they’re one of the top 16 teams in the country,” Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin said. “I don’t know if their RPI and all those numbers they’ll crunch if they’ll get to host, but I can tell you no one wants to see them as a two-seed. That lineup’s as good as anybody in the country. I think they’re a great team, and I think they’ve got a chance to make a lot of noise in the postseason. If they are a two-seed, the one-seed’s not going to be very happy to see them, I can tell you that.”
Kessinger wasn’t alone in coming alive with his bat. In the first four games in Hoover, Kessinger, Tyler Keenan and Cole Zabowski were a combined 3 for 33 (.090). The trio was 7 for 12 with two RBI, two runs and a walk on Sunday. Keenan exited due to dehydration after running out a double-play ground out in the bottom of the sixth. He was taken to the hospital, where he was given two bags of fluids. His status for Sunday is unclear.
Ole Miss, as a team, was 11 for 33 (.333) at the plate, its 22nd double-digit hit game. The Rebels had five hits combined in their previous two wins. They had nine in five innings against Georgia. The Bulldogs were 6 for 31 (.194) hitting, stifled by starter Houston Roth and a handful of relievers. Roth went a season-high 4.2 innings and allowed three runs on four hits with four strikeouts and two walks. Max Cioffi, Connor Green, Kaleb Hill and Parker Caracci finished off the final 4.1 innings. They totaled two hits against, no runs and two strikeouts. All but Hill walked at least one batter.
Caracci picked up the save, his 11th of the season and third in as many days, an all-time SEC Tournament record. He lowered his season ERA to 5.16. His 11 saves puts him into a tie for fifth for the program’s single-season save record.
“We threw everything we had at them,” Stricklan said. “We just couldn’t get the offense going, and that’s a credit to their pitching staff, that’s a credit to their defense.”
Hancock was tagged for three runs on six hits with three strikeouts in 3.2 innings. Locey lasted 2.2 innings. Ole Miss scored two runs on four hits against him, though the Rebels came up empty in a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the bottom of the fifth. Locey struck out four and walked one.
“We talk about it all the time, if you’re going to be the ace, you’ve got to match the ace,” Roth said. “Hancock and Locey, those are two of the best guys in the SEC. We had them matched there in the fifth inning.”
Kessinger finally was more like himself. It was fitting, really. This week has been all too familiar for the Rebels. They lost their first tournament game in 2018 before reeling off five straight for the crown with a 9-1 drubbing of LSU.
They likely won’t get the Tigers again (they were trailing Vanderbilt 7-0 when this story was published), but the Rebels are confident all the same. There’s just something about this place for Kessinger and Co. They didn’t panic or lose confidence when they lost to Arkansas on Wednesday. They squeaked by Texas A&M, 1-0, and rallied to beat Arkansas, 3-2.
They’ve been here before. They know what it takes. Ole Miss has won eight straight elimination games in the SEC Tournament and eight of its last nine games in Hoover.
Losing six of seven to close the regular season seems an eternity ago. Left-hander Zack Phillips will start Sunday. Right-handed ace Will Ethridge will be available out of the bullpen. Tyler Myers, too. The Rebels have allowed just 11 runs in five games. The bullpen has pitched to a 0.73 ERA in 12.1 innings.
“It’s seemed all too familiar,” Kessinger said. “Things have started rolling, finding ways to win. It just takes one close game you come out on top of to really get things rolling again. It’s crazy how this game works that way, but it’s what makes it fun.”
“We stumbled the last two weeks and then we came here and I thought we had a chance to find ourselves here, which you can do,” Bianco said. “You can get hot and all of the sudden people forget the last two weeks if you go to the postseason and you start playing well. I think sometimes that happens to older teams. It’s almost like we flipped the page. We got here and got tested. Some really close games and we were able to answer. It’s an amazing game like that. When you get some success, you start to roll a little bit.”