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Ole Miss survives disastrous 9th inning to secure first series win at LSU since 1982

BATON ROUGE — Baseball is a quirky sport that can be both rewarding and cruel. The majority of Ole Miss’ roster knows this. Whether it is from the rush of a walk-off win or a somber summer day last June when a 2018 season littered with highs cratered to a premature close.

This is a group with both scars and tales of triumph, a team that’s seen a lot. Sunday’s 19-15 extra-inning win over LSU to clinch the program’s first series win in Baton Rouge since 1982 tested the team’s resolve every bit as much as it did its pitching depth and offensive prowess.

“This game is crazy,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “Baseball is crazy. We will never see another one like this again.”

Ole Miss once led this game 10-1. The Rebels collected 23 hits, homered three times, posted a .484 average with men on base and was 10-for-24 with runners in scoring position. It thrashed the LSU pitching staff for 10 runs in five frames and 15 runs through eight innings, only to see its work evaporate in a catastrophic ninth inning.

Parker Caracci entered the game to begin the eighth, tasked with restoring order to a slugfest and collecting the final six outs. The first three came with relative ease. Two of the final three did as well. Caracci stood on the mound with a 15-9 lead with two outs in the ninth and the bases empty. It all unraveled after that. Saul Garza slapped a single through the left side and nine-hole hitter Brandt Broussard followed with a single to center. Leadoff hitter Zach Watson brought in a run on a weakly-hit infield single towards the shortstop. The score was 15-10 and it provided LSU all the opportunity it needed.

Antoine Duplantis crushed a three-run home run over the right field wall to trim the margin to 15-13. Cade Belso followed with a solo shot to right two pitches later and three pitches after that Josh Smith hammered a misplaced fastball to tie the game at 15 apiece. LSU scored five runs in a matter of six pitches. The stadium erupted as Caracci headed towards the dugout in favor of Austin Miller. It was truly baffling occurrence. Caracci is the most reliable arm in the Ole Miss bullpen. Five of his eight saves on the season required him to get more than three outs. His ninth save opportunity came and went in bizarrely quick fashion.

“To have your closer, who looked great and was dealing with no one on, and then them get I don’t know how many hits in a row, and then homer back-to-back-to-back, was just a devastating blow,” Bianco said. “I am proud of the way we hung in there.”

Miller rushed to get loose in the bullpen and induced a fourth consecutive fly ball to right field, keeping this one within the confines of the ballpark for the elusive third out. Bianco gathered his team around him in the dugout. The skipper in his 19th season tried to keep a demoralized group engaged in the game.

“Coach B said ‘This is our moment. We have not won down here in forever. It isn’t supposed to be easy,’” freshman Josh Hall said. “Everybody knew we were going to win from that moment. We knew we were going to score, hold them and in the streak.”

Aside from the immediate repercussions a loss in this game would have brought with regards to Ole Miss’ standing in the SEC West race and the hosting conversation, the gathering between Bianco and his players in the dugout prior to the 10th — on the heels of an epic collapse – was watershed moment for this team’s mental makeup.

“Do you believe you can win? Can you score a run and hold them from scoring? Can you do that? I challenged them to do that,” Bianco said.

Cooper Johnson drew a leadoff walk and Kevin Graham followed with a double to left-center gap. Hall dug into the box, originally expecting to bunt if Graham reached first base to move both runners over. The double afforded him the opportunity to swing away, knowing a steady diet of fastballs was coming from LSU close Devin Fontenot. Hall laced a 2-1 fastball into centerfield, plating both runners and giving the Rebels a 17-15 lead.

“I can’t really describe the feeling,” Hall said. “It was awesome. It felt good knowing everyone believed in me in the moment.”

The first five hitters of the inning reached base. The Rebels plated four runs, three of which came before recording an out. Ole Miss could’ve wilted as it meandered off the field in the ninth in a state of dismay. But, instead, the Rebels responded.

“I think we were all shocked when we came in after giving up the six runs,” Johnson said. “We flushed it. We realized we out-competed them today. We knew we were going to score runs. It was our game to win. We played to win and deserved that.”

Houston Roth put up a zero in the bottom of the 10th, just the second scoreless frame since the fourth inning to secure Ole Miss’ wildest win of the 2019 season. Roth was sent to the bullpen in the 6th inning but could not have possibly foreseen the scenario he was going to be thrust into. In a year that’s featured ups-and-downs, Roth mustered his third scoreless outing in his last four appearances. Roth has surrendered just one run in his last 5.1 innings.

“It was cool to be that guy at the end,” Roth said. “That three home runs in a row doesn’t happen. It won’t happen again. It had to be like that. We had to come back in the 10th to win a series down here for the first time since 1982. It had to be that way.”

This game featured 45 combined hits and 34 runs. Ole Miss was in a plethora of scenarios both optimal and suboptimal throughout. It received as titan-like performance from the offense, particularly the bottom portion of the order. Johnson, Cole Zabowski and Jacob Adams each had four hits. Six thru nine in the Ole Miss order combined to go 15-for-23 with 10 RBI.

Kevin Graham hit a three-run home run in the fifth that made it a 10-1 game. The game was becoming a rout. It morphed into a slugfest over the next three innings as LSU chipped away, squaring up Gunnar Hoglund the second time through the order and then plating five runs off his successors’ Zack Phillips and Taylor Broadway.

Ole Miss added two runs in the ninth inning – that, at the time, seemed relatively needless — to extend its lead to six 15-9. Chaos ensued as Caracci folded.

The importance of this win is layered for Ole Miss. Microscopically speaking, it gave them a road series win as it tries to keep pace in the SEC West. It improved the Rebels’ conference record to 15-9 in a year in which Ole Miss may have to win 19 SEC games to host a regional due to some nonconference pitfalls. Four wins in two weeks is an easier task to digest than the prospect of needing five. This win gave the program its first series victory in Baton Rouge since 1982. The drought was not lost on them. Bianco mentioned the streak in the postgame meeting Saturday night.

Perhaps, above all else, this win steered Ole Miss away from a backbreaking loss, the kind of loss that can wreck a club’s psyche. The plays necessary to secure this win came from an array of sources, both common and uncommon. Zabowski and Johnson have carried this offense at times this year. Adams and Graham have not had to shoulder quite the same weight, but their six combined hits were as crucial as any. Josh Hall had just 30 plate appearances entering the day. He broke his finger less than two weeks ago sliding into second base. He had just five hits on the season. Hall’s sixth won the game. Houston Roth overcame past inconsistencies to deliver the most vital three outs of the contest. The effort came from all over.

“When you look at this game, that is what you will look at,” Bianco said. “Collectively when you walk away from here and look at it like ‘Wow. We haven’t won here since 1982.’ There is a reason for that. It is a tough place to play and a tough place to win. Sometimes this kind of stuff happens. You have to be able to handle it. Our guys did. We didn’t think it was going to be easy.”

For now, Ole Miss leaves Baton Rouge at 15-9 in the SEC and all of its goals in front of it with two weekends left. The 32nd win didn’t come easy, but it was certainly hard earned.

Photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics

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