Rebs sweep to share SEC West baseball title

Ole Miss won 40 games for the first time in a regular season with its 9-1 victory at Arkansas Sunday.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - For Ole Miss baseball, Sunday was about a lot of things. Important things.

First of all, 40 wins. For only the second time in Rebel baseball history, an Ole Miss team won 40 games. The first time - 1995 - it took three wins in an NCAA Regional in Tallahassee to get to 40.

The 2005 Rebels didn't want to wait that long. So they came to northwest Arkansas and swept the Razorbacks. Kinda made it look easy, too.

After a 5-3 win Friday night, Ole Miss won by 10-2 and 9-1 counts to finish the regular season 40-16. The 18-12 record in league games equaled last season's mark for most conference wins in a season in school history.

So what else did the Rebels accomplish this weekend? For starters, a co-Southeastern Conference Western Division title along with LSU. But the Tigers got the higher seed in the SEC Tournament since they beat Ole Miss two of three games in Baton Rouge earlier this season.

The Rebels certainly rolled into an NCAA tournament berth for the fourth time in five seasons and 11th time ever. Most likely the Rebs did plenty to host an NCAA Regional for the second straight year as well. They won't find all that out officially until Memorial Day Monday.

Two RPI ratings had the Rebels anywhere from second to sixth nationally before the Sunday game. Ole Miss is close to sewing up a national top eight seed, which would be huge.

But the Rebels don't need to go 0-and-out at the SEC tourney like last season on the road to a top eight.

What would a top eight national seed mean? Most likely that they will not only host a Regional but also a Super Regional if they win the Regional.

To say it was a very good weekend in Fayetteviille for Rebel baseball is quite the understatement.

Ole Miss didn't waste much time taking charge of the Sunday game. The Rebels put up a five spot in the top of the second inning, with two solo home runs by Stephen Head and Barry Gunther which book-ended a three-run shot by Zack Cozart.

When a thunderstorm hit after three innings and with a rain delay of more than an hour and a half, the Rebels maintained that five-run lead and immediately built on it. After Cooper Osteen flew out in the top of the fourth, Cozart added a solo shot to his earlier three-run homer for a 6-0 UM lead.

"I was talking to Jon-Jon Hancock before the game, and he said 'Why don't you hit about three or four home runs today?' and I was like 'OK, I'll try.' I guess I fell a little short," said Cozart, now with nine home runs on the season.

"It was big for us to get all those runs early," Cozart continued. "We wanted to help Eric settle down by getting him some runs. Once he settled down, they really had no shot."

Starter Eric Fowler went seven innings, allowing no runs on six hits with six strikeouts and three walks.

"I was a little worried about that rain delay," said Fowler, who improved to 6-2 on the season. "But my arm actually felt a little better after that than before. Getting those five runs took a lot of pressure off of me."

Early in the contest, the Hogs had two runners on base with no outs in the bottom of the first and Fowler got the next three batters out on two fly balls and a strikeout. Bianco said holding Arkansas to no runs at the point set the tone for the day.

"To be able to get out of the first was a key, and it was that way the whole weekend," Bianco said. "We just didn't give up runs early all weekend and that was so big. Then today Head comes up and hits the home run to start us off in the top of the second."

After the Rebels later added three runs in the top of the eighth to lead 9-0, Tommy Baumgardner came in to simply tidy things up the final two frames.

The Hogs finally got their lone run in the ninth when the Rebels made an uncharacteristic error.

"We got a close win Friday and then we came out and just rolled the last two days," said Head, a team co-captain. "But we've really played this way all year. Our pitching has come around, and our hitting has been there most of the year."

Gunther, a four-year player at catcher and team co-captain, said the weekend helped the Rebels reach more of their goals.

"To win 40 games has always been one of our goals," Gunther said. "We did everything we possibly could this weekend to accomplish all our goals. We swept this weekend, and we hoped that would be enough to win the overall SEC. But hats off to teams like Florida who swept this weekend and Tennessee who won two of three, to finish ahead of us."

The Rebels beat both the Gators and Volunteers two of three games early in the season.

Ole Miss finished 9-3 over its last 12 games, including a sweep of both Mississippi State and Arkansas. Gunther had grown a bit tired of hearing year after year how the Rebels don't finish strong.

I'll give Gunther a break when he made a remark in our direction after the regular season had ended. Hey, a guy who has put his whole heart and soul into Rebel baseball like Gunther has for the past four years has a free pass to do that in my book - a player that has answered every question we've asked with patience and poise through good times and bad.

"Now all these reporters can stop writing about us falling apart at the end," he said. "We 'finished' this (regular) season, and you can put that down on paper."

But Gunther knows there are other goals to be reached. Doing what it takes to get to Omaha for the College World Series is the only thing on their collective minds.

"This is why I came back," Gunther, drafted last season after his junior year by his hometown team, the Florida Marlins. "But we've got a lot of bigger and more important things to take care of now."

Next up......Ole Miss and Alabama at 8 p.m. Wednesday on the first day of the SEC Tournament as the Rebels continue to finish what they started and to hopefully make baseball history at Ole Miss.

And also playing for that all-important national top eight seed.

"We've got to go play well in Birmingham, but our RPI is pretty good," Bianco said. "To sweep on the road against a ranked team, usually you're going to move up. Having a top five RPI helps you. Winning an SEC West title helps you. We just need to keep winning and see what happens."

If the three games at Arkansas are any indication, the Rebels will most likely do just that very thing.

"We've got to go down to Birmingham and win some ballgames," Head said. "We've got to go down there and try to win that thing. That would be fun. That would secure us a host spot so we could get ready to go to Omaha."

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