Rebels perched on regional’s ‘catbird seat’

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Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle

Ole Miss catcher Nick Fortes (7) is safe as the ball gets away from Tennessee Tech’s Brennon Kaleiwahea Sunday night.

OXFORD – If Red Barber, the late, great Big League announcer from Columbus, were still alive, he would say that the Ole Miss Rebels sit in the “Catbird Seat” of the Oxford Regional.

And good ol’ Red would be correct. But know this: Tennessee Tech made sure it was no easy climb to get there.

Ole Miss defeated Tennessee Tech 9-8 Sunday evening, but the Golden Eagles of the Ohio Valley Conference pressed the Rebels to the limit, to the very last out.

“I’m so proud of our guys for hanging in there,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “That was an unbelievable college baseball game with a lot riding on it.”

“I’m proud of our guys for fighting,” Tech coach Mike Bragga said, and fight they did.

Rick Cleveland

But to the victor go the spoils, and the spoils are ample in this case. The Rebels remain the only undefeated team in the double elimination format. They rested the remainder of the evening, while Tech had to turn around and play Missouri State.

The winner of that one will play Ole Miss at noon Monday and will need two straight wins over the Rebels to advance. One Ole Miss victory means the Rebels will host a Super Regional here next weekend.

Nothing came easy for the Rebels this day. Yes, they scored two runs in the top of the first, but then Tennessee Tech answered with two in the bottom of the third. When Ole Miss scored two in the top of the fifth to go ahead 4-2, Tech answered with two in the bottom of the inning to tie it again.

Ole Miss took a 5-4 lead in the top of the sixth, so naturally Tech evened it in the bottom of the sixth.

Tennessee Tech, which led the nation in home runs coming in, cracked three more in this game. Nick Osborne, the seven-hole hitter, blasted two himself. Tennessee Tech out-hit the Rebels 12-9.

Ole Miss had to be more creative in scoring its runs. The Rebels scored two important ones on one wild pitch in the ninth when first Cole Zabowski and then Will Golsan (from second base) crossed the plate on a ball that bounced wildly past catcher Brennon Kaleiwahea. Golsan was flying. Red Barber, famous for such sayings, might have said Golsan “was running like a bunny with his tail on fire.”

Earlier, the situation had become so dicey Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco had to call on his closer, Parker Caracci, with nobody out and two runners on in the bottom of the seventh.

As he so often does, Caracci saved the day – at least for the time being.

Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle

Houston Roth celebrates the strikeout that saved the game.

And Ole Miss went on to take a 9-5 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. Tech was still aiming for that Catbird Seat and very nearly got there. Even when Caracci struck out the first batter, the Eagles didn’t give in. They loaded the bases on Caracci, so Bianco went to Greer Holston – and then finally to Houston Roth, who got the final out on a strikeout on a three-two count with runners at the corners.

Get this, from Roth, a sophomore from Oxford: “It was exciting. It’s the first time in my career I’ve come into the game in that kind of situation in the ninth inning.”

Mission accomplished.

When Tech leadoff hitter Alex Junior swung and missed for strike three, a jam-packed Oxford-University Stadium crowd announced at 10,891 finally let out a collective sigh of relief.

Their Rebels had tied a school record with their 48th victory of the season against 15 losses. Worth noting is that the Rebels denied Tennessee Tech their 50th victory.

Tennessee Tech came into the game with a 49-9 record. Many fans might have wondered were they really that good or was it against inferior competition.

They got their answer. Tech is really good. But the Rebels got the victory, one that had the crowd hanging – and often begging – on every pitch.

Another Red Barber-ism: “Baseball is dull only to dull minds.”

There was nothing dull about this one.