OMAHA, Neb. — It’s not over in Omaha, of course. Recent history warns everyone about that, since five of the past six national champions — including the latest three in a row — lost Game 1 of the Men’s College World Series Finals. Same as Oklahoma just did to Ole Miss.
“It’s a three-game series for a reason,” the Sooners’ Blake Robertson was saying late Saturday night, on the wrong end of a 10-3 whacking.
True. But for anyone wondering what this remarkable Ole Miss surge has become . . . for anyone curious about the mystical force that the Oklahoma Sooners seem to be up against . . . for anyone wanting to see what this raging Rebels karma looks like now, one win from a national championship . . .
Saturday night was a display case. It was all Ole Miss, with a vivid — and loud — demonstration of how the Rebels have gone from barely in the tournament to a runaway train. Or to underline coach Mike Bianco’s pre-game message of the day to his team:
“You deserve to be here, and it’s time to press the gas pedal and go for it.”
This is what going for it looks like these days for Ole Miss:
Notice how pitcher Jack Dougherty spent his Saturday
He hadn’t started a game in three months. Bianco sent him out Saturday night and Dougherty retired the first 15 Oklahoma batters he faced. No pitcher had done that in Omaha in at least 23 years. “We wanted someone to fill up the strike zone,” Bianco said of his thinking. Right. At one stretch, Dougherty struck out five Sooners in a row. Only two balls left the infield in the first five innings. He tired in the sixth, but never mind that.
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He said he was surprised Friday when he was told he'd be getting the ball, rather than No. 1 starter Hunter Elliott, who will go Sunday instead. “Coach explained to me that he wanted Hunter to be at his best, and wanted him to be on correct rest,” Dougherty said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking. I was a little stressed out. I had trouble falling asleep but I woke up this morning just excited to go out there.”
He didn’t tell anyone he was starting, including his mother.
“I apologized to her. I don’t know why, but it’s one of those things I think I’m putting extra pressure on myself if I talk about myself, so I didn’t know how to bring it up to her. She found out on Twitter. and she was not pleased.
“I didn’t want to think about it too much, didn’t want to get in my own head. I just wanted to go out there and pitch. Coach B grabbed me before the game and said `just be you.’”
Turns out, Jack Dougherty being Jack Dougherty was plenty good enough.
Listen to the sounds of the Rebels' eighth inning
Boom, boom, boom. A 4-0 lead had been cut to 4-2. Then, TJ McCants, Calvin Harris and Justin Bench put on a back-to-back-to-back home run fireworks show. That hadn’t happened in Omaha in 24 years, and never in Charles Schwab Field. McCants had one single in the MCWS until that moment. Harris hit a ball 430 feet from the ninth spot in the batting order, only his third home run all season. Bench’s last home run was six weeks ago.
“We got some balls in their hot zone,” said Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson, “and they deposited them.”
Look how the Rebels began their day
In each of the first two innings, they had nobody on base with two out — and ended up scoring two runs in the first and another in the second. Elko homered in the third. Suddenly they had a 4-0 lead over a Sooners team that had not trailed in its last four games.
Ole Miss scored six of its 10 runs Saturday with two out, which has become one of its trademarks. “ We harp on it all the time that even with two outs, there’s still 33 1/3 percent of the inning left,” Elko said.
Take a peek at the Ole Miss stat sheet in Omaha
The Rebel hitters scored 10 runs Saturday. The pitchers have allowed only 12 runs in five games in the Men's College World Series. The batters had 16 hits in Game 1, and the pitchers had 15 strikeouts. The bullpen has a 1.24 ERA in the postseason, and that was a main feature in the sixth inning when freshman reliever Mason Nichols entered a brewing crisis, with the score 4-1 and the Oklahoma bases loaded with nobody out. He allowed only one more run to score.
Consider the Sooners' Game 1 woes
Oklahoma managed only five hits, and a team that has thrived by keeping the heat on offensively let a big comeback chance get away in the sixth. Meanwhile, the first two innings were a bit of a mess. An error cost the Sooners a run in the first. Starting pitcher Jake Bennett, who had only three wild pitches all season, uncorked three more in the first nine batters.
Johnson sensed a team straying from its usual operating style of facing the task of baseball one pitch at a time.
“When you try at this game, you fail. This is just what it does to you and you have to make sure you can get in control of yourself, take a breath, and make it just about one pitch,” he said. “I thought in that rally in the sixth inning we swung at balls, and that happens when you are trying really hard to do something.”
Listen to the crowd
Has Omaha suddenly turned into Oxford, Mississippi? It only sounded that way. The powder-blue Ole Miss jerseys have arrived in Charles Schwab Field in waves, and the roar Saturday night had a decidedly Rebels lean to it. When those home runs kept leaving the ballpark in the eighth, the Sooners must have wondered how they ended up playing a road game in the College World Series.
“I would say there were probably 20,000 Rebels there. It was an amazing environment.” Elko said.
“It felt like a football game,” Bianco said. “(Ole Miss home stadium) Swayze has been pretty loud, I don’t know if Swayze has ever been that loud.”
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It will likely only get louder for Sunday’s game, with the Rebels on the brink of a title. Oklahoma's players maintain they can handle the racket. They went through their regional and super regional in hostile ballparks.
“I think we actually enjoy shutting up the crowd,” Robertson said. “I just don’t think it impacts us.”
But they’ll have to do that shutting up of the crowd immediately. No margin for error now.
“We woke up this morning and still had to win two games. We’ll wake up tomorrow morning and still have to win two games,” Johnson said.
But Ole Miss only has to win one.