(AP Photo/John Peterson)
At their best, the Arkansas Razorbacks have proven to be one of the best teams in college baseball, but unfortunately for the Hogs and their fans, they faced a pitching nightmare Monday night in a 13-5 loss to the scorching hot Ole Miss Rebels at Schwab Field in Omaha, Neb.
The loss drops the Hogs (44-20) into the elimination bracket of the College World Series where they will face fellow SEC member Auburn (43-21) in a do-or-die matchup at 6 p.m. on ESPN2. Auburn defeated Stanford (47-18), 6-2, to advance on Monday.
The Razorbacks won two of three from Auburn on the road May 6-8 during the regular season, but the Hogs also whipped the Rebels two out of three in the regular season.
Win tonight, and the Razorbacks get another swing against Ole Miss at 6 p.m Wednesday. Win that game, and the Hogs and Rebels tangle one more time for the right to advance into Saturday’s best-two-of three championship series.
Like Ole Miss, Oklahoma (44-22) sits in the catbird seat, undefeated on the other side of the bracket. Texas A&M (43-19) and Notre Dame (41-16) play an elimination game at 1 p.m. today that will be televised by ESPN.
The odds are stacked heavily against the Hogs to advance to the championship series. Eighty percent of the time, the teams that move to 2-0 in the CWS advance on to the championship series since this format of play began a couple of decades ago.
But a 20 percent chance is better than having no chance.
The Hogs must flush Monday’s less-than-stellar performance that saw the Razorback skipper Dave Van Horn plumb the depths of the Razorbacks bullpen, using seven pitchers in an attempt to halt the Ole Miss onslaught, which saw the Rebels take a 6-3 lead in the third inning before piling on four runs in the fifth to go ahead 10-3.
The Rebels would add three more runs in the seventh for good measure before Arkansas tacked on two runs in the ninth for the final 13-5 tally.
Van Horn summed up the Hogs performance succinctly in his postgame media conference.
“They played better than us and we need to move on,” Van Horn said. “You can’t look at the big picture. You have to figure out how to play well tomorrow. Got to play well tomorrow. Got to win tomorrow and have a chance to play the next day. That’s our focus, just move on and get to tomorrow night’s game.”
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco certainly was more cheerful thanks to his Rebels’ outstanding display on the mound from starter Hunter Elliot and at the plate by the entire Rebel squad.
“We were terrific tonight,” Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco said. “Just really played well. Hunter was just like he’s pitched the second half of the season. Not to take anything away from Arkansas, but he shouldn’t have given up a run today.”
The Rebels, who were ranked No. 1 early in the season before struggling, have not lost a game in the NCAA Tournament, while the Razorbacks tumbled to 6-2.
The night started tough for the Razorbacks as Zach Morris, in only his second start this season, struggled with control.
“Zack didn’t get out of the first inning,” Van Horn said. “Walked a couple. Gave up an 0-2 count single to the lead-off man. That was kind of the beginning of it. And we just didn’t pitch very well.”
A parade of Razorback pitchers followed with none being effective until the game was well out of hand.
Ole Miss slugger and team captain Tim Elko all but shattered the Razorbacks’ chances with a Ruthian 416-foot, two-run home run for his 23rd of the season and 4-1 Ole Miss lead in the second.
“Offensively we were really, really good,” Bianco said. “…Elko had a huge home run, one of the longest balls I’ve ever seen hit here.”
The Razorbacks crawled back in the game scoring two runs in the second to cut the Ole Miss lead to 4-3. The highlights were a Jalen Battles double and a Zack Gregory perfectly placed RBI bunt. However the Rebels’ quashed the Hogs’ comeback attempt in the third, staking a 6-3 lead and never looked back.
“We almost crawled back into it after a couple, and then they go out and get a couple more in the third,” Van Horn said. “That was a little disappointing. The fifth inning, that’s when the game pretty much turned: Couple of walks, couple of hits, maybe three walks, I’m not sure. But we just didn’t slow them down.”
The season is on the line for the Razorbacks tonight against a strong Auburn squad, whose back is also against the wall.
It will be interesting to see how Van Horn rallies the Hogs for today’s game in the CWS that has seen all but one — Texas A&M — of the top seven seeds be eliminated.
Neither Van Horn nor Auburn coach Butch Thompson had announced starters for tonight’s game.
Thompson had some “tough love” for his players prior to their victory over Stanford Monday afternoon.
Evidently several of the Auburn players, including second baseball Cole Foster, who left Saturday’ game in the fourth inning, have been struggling with a stomach bug.
“There’s a list of excuses that weakens us that we don’t have to talk about — traveling across the country and seven or eight guys on the toilet too much and not feeling well from a tough week,” Thompson said Monday on his pre-game radio show. “Every one of those are excuses.”
Whether the illness is a literal stomach flu like some of the Auburn players suffered from or the Razorbacks just feeling sick over the way they performed Monday night, both squads must flush whatever is ailing them and prepare to play tonight as if the season is on the line — because it actually is.
The game should be a good one, and win or lose, expect the Hogs to perform better tonight than they did Monday.