So depending on what polls you looked at, this was a top ten national series between Ole Miss and East Carolina. Two really good teams went at it on Swayze Field this weekend, and Ole Miss prevailed three times. They may see each other again in June.
It really was all it was headlined to be. East Carolina and Ole Miss played to 5-4, 3-2, 8-6 final scores – all Rebel wins. Every game was a thriller. The only time it looked like one might be a blowout of whatever proportions was when ECU got up 6-2 Sunday with four runs in the top of the sixth. But Ole Miss stopped that by answering with five runs of its own in the bottom half of that inning and never trailed again.
It was a mix of veterans and youth that got things done all weekend for Ole Miss. The oft-ballyhooed class of newcomers certainly stepped up successfully on the big stage as record crowds welcomed them to college baseball. In all honesty it was a veteran bunch of arms that ultimately lifted the Rebels to three wins this weekend.
Sure, there were timely hits and just enough of them. There were some impressive defensive plays all weekend. A whole lot of moves and maneuvering worked out just fine. It doesn’t always turn out that way.
But that pitching staff; that bullpen. If they stay healthy for four months, there might not be a better staff top to bottom in the country. Bold statement, sure. Especially so since I don’t know a whole lot about a lot of other staffs. But take this as an example. After all the arms that were rolled out there, you still have yet to see one of the more highly-touted freshmen arms of them all – righty Will Ethridge. You might see him start against Arkansas State Tuesday afternoon. However when asked, Coach Mike Bianco said they hadn’t determined a starter for the Rebels’ first midweek game yet.
Freshman shortstop Grae Kessinger got three hits Sunday after going hitless the first two games. His confidence has to be higher now after his big day. We knew freshman Cole Zabowski and juco sophomore Chase Cockrell were going to hit the baseball. We saw that in the fall, and one of them was likely going to be the first baseman. Cole got two starts there this weekend and Chase got the Saturday start there. Chase DH’ed the two games he didn’t start at first. The DH when he did start at first was freshman hitter Thomas Dillard. When Dillard didn’t DH he started in left, and that was for two games.
Lots of pieces out there. Lots of interchangeable players that give this team talent and depth not seen that often up and down the roster and lineup.
Nobody at his position was more impressive this weekend than freshman catcher Cooper Johnson. Time after time he threw people out and handled the games like a veteran not a true freshman in his first starts. Every bit of hype and publicity about Johnson’s defensive prowess was confirmed. And when sophomore Nick Fortes came in to catch to start the seventh, the Rebels continued to have solid play behind the plate.
Certainly sophomore reliever Dallas Woolfolk stands out as one of the real keys to two victories this weekend. An inning of relief Saturday, allowing no baserunner, facing three batters and striking out two of them. Then on Sunday in as difficult a situation as a reliever can come into and getting it done with three straight strikeouts, the bases loaded, and the Rebels leading 7-6 in the top of the eighth. In the ninth he simply finished the Pirates off.
So many positive aspects to draw on from this weekend. The Rebels got three wins against a quality foe. They got a lot of players in the games. The pitching staff was effective. Several key players hit the ball well and those that didn’t – Tate Blackman for example with just one hit – you know are going to contribute and more.
Losses are coming because it’s baseball. How this team bounces back from one will also reveal some things about them. But you got a taste of just how they might handle that on Sunday when they were down four runs more than midway through the game and found a way to get it done. Confidence and talent. They can take a team a long way. This team showed a lot of both this weekend in a top ten national series.
Freshman 1B Cole Zabowski
On his two-run home run to tie the game 2-2 in the second inning: “I was just looking for a good pitch to hit, and when I got a hold of it, it looked like he was going to catch it on the warning track. I was hoping it would get out, and when it did, there was not another feeling like it. It was awesome.” On his first experience as a player at Ole Miss: “It was incredible, everything about it. From the showers in right field to the crowd the whole weekend bringing the energy, it was awesome.” On the newcomers contributing so much to the three wins: “We didn’t exactly know what to expect. But once we got going, we knew we had some clutch guys and some guys that could come through. It didn’t matter the circumstance.” On his thoughts of reliever Dallas Woolfolk’s performance: “When he came in and just shoved it down their throat, there was nothing they could do about it.”
Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco
On pinch-runner Carson Klepzig’s slide into second base, which was an out but prevented ECU from completing a double play that might have halted Ole Miss’ scoring in the five-run sixth: “One of the reasons we went with Carson is that he might have been the fastest guy on the bench. Backup catcher and can really run. It put a little pressure on (ECU) having a fast guy in there. The legal slide is to slide straight into the base, and Carson did that. He did everything legal. But the biggest part of it was to be able to get there so quickly.”
On Dallas Woolfolk’s relief appearance and success: “Baseball is an amazing game. We score an insurance run. It’s 8-6. We’ve got a popup to left field and two guys collide. Next thing you know in like 30 seconds the winning run’s at first base, bases loaded and no outs. Bring Dallas in and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more dominant performance (in that situation). I don’t know if there can be. The talented team he’s facing and to strike out five of six right there in the middle of their lineup, just terrific.” On starter Brady Feigl: “Tough one for him. They’re a really good team, really good offensively. It looked like he was in control and all of a sudden they have some good at-bats in the sixth. And we weren’t able to get out unscathed. I thought he pitched pretty well today.” On his bullpen this weekend: “We pitched well out of the bullpen. That wasn’t unexpected. We felt comfortable going in about the bullpen.” On getting the sweep of ECU: “They’re all good when you win ‘em. Proud. So much has been said about the young team and not too many older guys. I thought everybody played well. It’s one weekend with 13 left in the regular season. We made some mistakes and did some things we need to correct. But for the most part against a really, really good East Carolina team, I thought our guys handled the pressure well.”
OXFORD, Miss. – (Ole Miss SID) The No. 8 Ole Miss baseball team used a huge offensive sixth inning as well as clutch pitching from a familiar face to claim an 8-6 victory and series sweep over No. 6 East Carolina Sunday afternoon at Swayze Field. The Rebels (3-0) scored five runs in the sixth inning to erase a four-run deficit, and sophomore Dallas Woolfolk (1) got his team out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth to help keep the undefeated season intact.
With the comeback victory, the Rebels swept a top-10 team for the first time since 2010. Ole Miss is off to a 3-0 start for the fifth time in the past seven seasons, and 10th overall under head coach Mike Bianco.
The Rebels scored six of their eight runs in the sixth inning or later, while giving up zero runs over the last three innings. Freshmen Cole Zabowski and Grae Kessinger led the offensive charge for the Rebels with half of the team's 10 hits. Zabowski led the way by going 2-for-4 with four RBIs, including a two-run home run in the second inning for the first dinger of his career. Kessinger recorded his first career hit as well as two others by going 3-for-4 with three singles to provide a spark at the bottom of the lineup.
The Pirates (0-3) jumped on top of Rebel starter Brady Feigl with two runs in the first inning. After back-to-back singles to start off the day, Feigl recorded back-to-back strikeouts before giving up a two-run single to ECU catcher Travis Watkins, who finished the day 3-for-5 with three RBI.
The Rebel bats were held in check by ECU starter Trey Benton in the first inning, but he went on to give up four hits over just 1.2 innings of work while striking out three. His day was ended in the second inning after a one-out single to freshman Thomas Dillard followed by the Zabowski homer to center field, the first of his career. Coming on in relief, Joe Ingle faced 10 hitters and retired nine of them while surrendering one hit and recording three strikeouts over 3.1 innings of work.
The sixth inning saw nine runs cross the plate between the two clubs. The Pirates forced Feigl out of the contest with back-to-back singles and an RBI double that made the score 3-2 in ECU's favor. Freshman Ryan Rolison (1-0) came out of the bullpen for his first appearance as a Rebel. The Jackson, Tennessee native, entered in a tough situation with runners on second and third and nobody out. He struck out the first batter he faced, but ECU countered to bring three more runs across the plate to increase the lead to four, 6-2.
The Rebels didn’t let the Pirates’ big inning deter them as they responded with an even bigger inning of their own. Senior Colby Bortles led off the frame by getting hit by a pitch, and junior Chase Cockrell moved him to second with a fielder's choice before Will Golsan delivered an RBI single to left field to plate the third baseman. Dillard drew a walk to reach base, and a passed ball moved both Rebels intwo scoring position. With two ducks on the pond, Zabowski smacked his second multi-RBI hit of the day with a two-run single to center that sliced the deficit to 6-5 with only one out in the inning.
Redshirt-sophomore Michael Fitzsimmons made his season debut with a pinch-hit four-pitch walk before redshirt-freshman Carson Klepzig pinch ran for him, entering a game for the first time as a Rebel. With two on and one out, a grounder to short looked like a double play that would get ECU out of the inning with the lead. However, a perfect slide by Klepzig broke up the twin-killing and kept the inning alive. As he did all weekend, sophomore Ryan Olenek delivered at the dish with a double to center that plated Zabowski and Kessinger to give Ole Miss its first lead of the game, 7-6.
Sophomore Connor Green and freshman Greer Holston combined to keep the Pirates off the scoreboard in the seventh, but ECU loaded the bases with nobody out one inning later. The threat caused Bianco to call on Woolfolk, a hard-throwing righty. With a fastball between 94-95 mph and an effective slider, the sophomore three-straight Pirates down on strikes to get Ole Miss out of the inning unscathed. The three consecutive strikeouts led to a roar from the 9,459 in attendance as the Rebels held on to the one-run lead.
Woolfolk came back out in the ninth to earn the six-out save, striking out two more en route to a perfect outing and locking up a sweep of No. 6 ECU for the Rebels.
The Rebels will be back in action on Tuesday, February 21, when they take on Arkansas State at 4 p.m. for the first Dollar Hot Dog Night of the season. The game can be caught on SEC Network+ with Will Kollmeyer and David Dellucci on the call.