Thomas Dillard was surprised to see the baseball get past Texas A&M catcher Mikey Hoehner and to the backstop.
Hoehner was expecting the pitch from Kasey Kalich to be down and away. Kalich missed up and in, the ball sailed behind Hoehner and Dillard bolted toward the plate, scored the game-winning run and delivered a 3-2 win and a sweep of the No. 6 Aggies.
“Their catcher was great all weekend,” Dillard said. “A ball hadn’t gotten to the backstop all weekend.”
Dillard stood at third with one out, two batters after coaxing a one-out walk in a nine-pitch at bat. He snagged two bases on a Cole Zabowski single to center field, an aggressive play that changed the dynamic of the inning and eventually the game. Texas A&M elected to walk Cooper Johnson to load the bases and pitch to Michael Fitzsimmons.
“That play won the game, him going for it there,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “You have to go for it. To get to third with less than two outs, it puts us at a huge advantage. All we have to do is hit a fly ball somewhere.”
The game was won in the ninth, but the overarching story was the career long six innings from freshman Gunnar Hoglund. He provided the length the Rebels have been starved of on the back end of its weekend rotation. Hoglund allowed two runs on on five hits with no walks and three strikeouts.
“The game plan was getting the off speed working early,” Hoglund said. “Attacking early in the count and getting ahead of batters.”
Hoglund left in the seventh with a 2-1 lead and a man on third that would eventually score to tie the game. The final run charged to Hoglund was hardly his fault. Logan Foster hit a fly ball that Ryan Olenek had trouble tracking. It found grass in deep left center and was scored as a leadoff triple. Hoglund’s lone blemish aside from the triple was an elevated mistake to Zach DeLoach. who deposited a solo shot over the right field wall in the bottom of the third. A&M led 1-0 after the blast.
“Really not a lot of pressure innings,” Bianco said. “Not a lot of traffic on the base path. He was that good.”
Hoglund providing that sort of length for the Rebels at the end of the rotation changes this team’s ceiling. It’s been a struggle of a freshman year for Hoglund, who has shown flashes of what made him a first round selection by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the MLB Draft last June, but his secondary stuff has failed him at times this year, making him too fastball-reliant and forcing frequent mistakes. Hoglund’s curveball and changeup were effective in this outing, two outings removed from striking out eight hitters in a loss to Kentucky. Perhaps things are beginning to click.
All three of Ole Miss’ starting pitchers went five innings for the first time this season.
“It seemed like we didn’t really use our bullpen all weekend,” Dillard said. “For Gunnar to do that and then Miller came in and threw as hard as I have ever seen him throw, that was huge. If Gunnar can pitch like that — and he has electric stuff, just go out there and be confident — we can win a lot of games.”
A Dillard sacrifice fly in the fourth tied the game at one.
Hoglund was afforded the lead by way of a Cole Zabowski two-out RBI double in the bottom half of the sixth inning. The Rebels had two runners on, Zabowski hit a looping ball to center that fell in between the left and center fielders, plating a Grae Kessinger one-out walk. Dillard was thrown out trying to tack on a second run on the play.
Austin Miller and Parker Caracci combined for three scoreless innings to get the game to the bottom of the ninth. Dillard has scored or driven in a run in each of the Rebels’ last five walk-off wins, including a walk-off single on Thursday night to open the series.
This was a significant win for a team that has been plagued by inconsistency. Ole Miss now sits at 13-8 in the SEC, despite the pitching staff being spread thin at times and pieces of the lineup performing at varying levels, the Rebels vaulted themselves firmly back into the SEC West race and into the hosting conversation. As of this writing, the Rebels are in second place in the West, two games back in the loss column of Arkansas, who still has two games to be played this weekend. It is a bit puzzling to view the Rebels from such a lens given all of the moving parts the team has had to work through to this point. But this was a season-altering weekend for this team. A series loss and the path to hosting a regional looked bleak. With a sweep, 18 conference wins looks very possible.
Consistency, both collectively as a team and specifically on the mound will ultimately determine this team’s fate, but the Rebels sit in as good of a position as anyone right now in terms of winning the SEC West for a second consecutive year and accomplishing the goals in their sights.
Photo credit: Joshua McCoy– Ole Miss Athletic