Rebels play State for SEC tourney title

HOOVER, Ala. - And now.....there are two. And only two. Two who know each other very well. Two who don't necessarily like each other. Two who might not have imagined the scenario as it has played out here the past four days.

On Championship Sunday in the SEC Tournament, Ole Miss will play Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs, seeded seventh, took the short road. They beat LSU, South Carolina, and Tennessee - one game each day - to get to Sunday. They even had a day off on Friday.

The Rebels, seeded fourth and co-champs of the SEC West, beat Alabama on Wednesday but lost to Florida on Thursday. There would be no day off now.

Ole Miss had a rematch with Alabama on Friday and won it while State rested. Then on Saturday, after MSU had beaten the Volunteers to advance to Sunday, the Rebels would have to beat the Gators twice to make it an all-Mississippi final.

And so they did.

The Rebels started Anthony Cupps on the mound in game one. The junior right-hander has had 14 appearances in 2005 including 11 starts. But he hadn't pitched since May 7 at Auburn. That was three weeks ago.

"My arm was well rested today," said Cupps following a complete game of seven innings as the Rebels 10-run-ruled Florida by a 14-1 count. "I just went out there and tried to give us a chance to win. I hadn't thrown in 3 weeks so my arm felt good."

He smiled after he said that. He should still be smiling. Anthony Cupps is a huge reason Ole Miss is playing on Sunday.

I knew Tommy Baumgardner would be ready, too. You see, Baumgardner is one of those unflappable kids. He's never going to be a head case. He will give you all he's got and you can expect him to be solid because of his abilities and maturity.

In the Rebels' 4-2 win in game two, he was that and more. Having only started one game - a remote Tuesday night encounter with Southeast Missouri way back on March 15, a 6-5 Rebel win - Baumgardner was as sure of his abilities as a starter today as he has been in a relief role 18 other times this season.

This week he had warmed up each day as if he were going in to relieve. But it never happened.

"You get hot and you get cold doing that," said Baumgardner of all the ups and downs he went through to still be able to come out in game two and go six innings and allow just one run. "But you just have to fight through it, and that's what I tried to do."

Mike Bianco said his pitchers were one large key in the success the Rebels had today.

"It was the story of the day," he said. "Anthony Cupps was just about as dominant as he could be in the first game.

"Then you have to really understand how special what Tommy Baumgardner did today was in that second game. Tommy warmed up all three days early in the games and for four or five innings warmed up in the bullpen, only two or three innings later to be passed by another guy. To come out here on this day and go that deep into the game was a great effort.

"And what Stoney Stone did at the end was just a super job," Bianco said of the junior right-handed reliever who pitched the last three frames in game two and allowed only one run. "I'm obviously very proud of all of them and what they did out there today."

Game one was the key. If the Rebels don't win it, there is no doubleheader.

Cupps was on, but so was the Rebel offense. Ole Miss outhit the Gators 16-2 in the first contest, which from the third inning on when the Rebs put seven runs on the board, was actually no contest at all.

Ron Polk, the longtime State coach, said he will start Brooks Dunn against the Rebels Sunday. Ole Miss has faced the junior left-hander from Birmingham before. He started for the Bulldogs in the Mayor's Trophy game on March 29 and got the loss in a 5-1 UM win.

The Rebels won that trophy for the fourth straight year. The stakes are considerably higher Sunday.

That's why, five games into this tourney, Bianco did not name a starter but hinted it might be Mark Holliman, who pitched Wednesday.

I am not saying it will indeed be the Rebel ace. But it wouldn't shock me if it is.

Stephen Head, who says he's ready to pitch again and wants to, also says there's no denying both teams will be extra pumped to beat each other. Arch-rivals don't often meet in conference title games like this. Ole Miss is 4-0 against MSU this season, including a three-game sweep in Oxford.

"It will be fun to play those guys again," Head said. "We're familiar with a lot of them, and it will be hard-fought. It will be fun."

Those were nice comments from Head. But if you know him at all, you know he is feeling more intense, more eager, more anxious for the battle than simply those middle of the road comments he made in the press room early Saturday evening.

Every player on both teams will want this one as bad as any game they've played in their lives.

But no matter the importance of this Sunday, you can't sell your soul to win a championship this weekend and forget about next weekend which is even more important. Next Sunday is when you have to win a title - an NCAA regional title to advance to a super regional.

"This is the toughest tournament that we play in," Bianco said of the SEC tourney. "These eight teams are as good as any in the country. Our team knows this week is important. They also know next weekend is even more important. If we lose two next weekend, the season's over."

All that being said, Sunday afternoon in Hoover is an important moment in the life of both these programs and for everyone involved.

An entire state will be on edge with every pitch, base hit, fly ball, and ground out.

"It's a special day for baseball in Mississippi," Bianco said. "To play for a championship in the toughest conference in the nation says a lot for not just college baseball in Mississippi but also for the kids on the rosters, many of whom are from the state of Mississippi."

And by nightfall on Sunday.....there will be only one.


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