*** Editor's note: Ben Hammond also contributed to this story.
HOOVER, Ala. - On Tuesday Mark Holliman said he wanted to get the Ole Miss Rebels off to a strong start in this week's Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament. One day, seven innings and fourteen strikeouts later, Holliman did just that.
In front of 11,318 fans in the finale of four games Wednesday, Holliman turned in what was most likely his best outing of the season, surrendering only four hits and walking four as Ole Miss beat Alabama 3-1.
"It was a great college baseball game," said Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco, whose team, now 41-16, set a school record for wins in a season. "I don't know if Mark could have been more dominant today. He was great out there."
Holliman said his pitches were working well for him, but his slider was maybe the most dependable of the night.
"Whenever I needed a strikeout or to get an out, I went to the slider," he said. "It was real effective tonight."
Stephen Head relieved Holliman heading into the eighth. Head said he'd never seen Holliman any better.
"He was just absolutely dominant," said Head, who pitched the final two frames, giving up one run on two hits with three strikeouts and a walk. "He was throwing the ball in the mid to upper 90s. It was unbelievable. It was a great game and a great performance by Mark."
Holliman, who improved to 7-3 on the year, said three seasons of pitching against SEC hitters got him ready for moments like these.
"Being able to go out every week and pitch against the competition we face really helps," he said. "It's a matter of coming back after every start and working on things that didn't go quite as well. Once you master those, then you go out the next week and pitch even better. I feel really good and really strong right now. Tonight has got to rank up there with one of my top performances."
Offensively, the Rebels got three runs early and let their pitching arms and defense do the rest.
Zack Cozart came up with a big two-out hit on an 0-2 count in the second inning, a single which scored not only Mark Wright who had reached on a fielder's choice but also Cozart himself as Alabama threw the ball around and committed two errors on the play. The Crimson Tide had already recorded one error in the inning which allowed Wright to get all the way to second on the fielder's choice.
"It's all about getting the big hit, and in that second inning I was able to get the two-out hit," said Cozart, 2-for-3 with an RBI. "Two-out hits just deflate the other team. And when you put some pressure on them with the base-running like we did, sometimes good things happen for you."
Ole Miss added another run in the third on a fly ball to the outfield by Brian Pettway to score Cooper Osteen who had walked and advanced to third on a Chris Coghlan double.
Alabama threatened in the fifth and the seventh, but each time Holliman was able to get out of it with no damage. Alabama had runners on first and third with one out in the fifth, and the next two hitters struck out and grounded out respectively.
In the seventh, Bama had runners on first and second with one out and Holliman was able to get the Tide to strikeout out and lineout to end it.
Alabama starter Wade LeBlanc pitched all eight innings for the Tide, allowing one earned run on six hits with five strikeouts and a walk.
Holliman, whose 14 strikeouts were a career high, said the lengthy wait (the game was scheduled to start at 8 p.m. but did not actually start until almost two hours later) wasn't all that bad.
"It's always tough to sit around, but I enjoyed watching the Florida game and look forward to playing them tomorrow," he said.
Holliman, who became the first Ole Miss pitcher to record 100 strikeouts in consecutive seasons, said the crowd was a factor, even though Ole Miss was probably outnumbered five to one.
Another thing Holliman had said Tuesday, in addition to getting the Rebels started off on the right foot, was that he expected a large and vocal contingent of Ole Miss supporters. He and the Rebels got just that.
"The crowd was awesome, and when you get your adrenaline running like that with so many fans here supporting us, that really helped me out tonight," he said.
Ole Miss will next play No. 1 seed Florida (39-18) in a winner's bracket game Thursday at 8 p.m. The Gators scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth and then a run in the bottom of the ninth to rally from an 8-2 deficit and defeat No. 8 seed Arkansas 9-8 Wednesday.
The Crimson Tide (37-20) will face the Razorbacks (37-19) in an elimination game Thursday at 1 p.m.
Junior LHP Matt Maloney (7-2, 2.61 ERA) will start on the mound for the Rebs. Junior RHP Alan Horne (7-2, 4.00 ERA), the former Rebel, is the probable starting pitcher for the Gators.
Ole Miss beat Florida two of three games in Oxford to open the SEC season.
Rebs get past Tide 3-1 in tourney opener
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