By Rick Cleveland
OMAHA — There’s a term baseball coaches often use about their teams: “coming full circle.” It’s usually a good thing. With Ole Miss, it’s better than good. When Mike Bianco used the term Sunday morning before a practice at Creighton University, “full circle” was more like baseball Nirvana.
As has been well-documented, Ole Miss has been to baseball hell and back in one season.
Think about it. On May 1, Bianco’s Rebels left Fayetteville having lost tough games to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday and Sunday. The defeats dropped the Rebels to 7-14 in the Southeastern Conference and 22-17 overall. They didn’t have their backs to the wall, so much as they were locked behind an impenetrable wall with seemingly no way out and precious little oxygen left to breathe.
Since then, Ole Miss has won 14 of 17. The Rebels are a perfect 6-0 in the NCAA Tournament, the only team in the tournament that has not suffered a single defeat. They are one of four teams still undefeated in the College World Series. They have out-scored NCAA competition 51-12. They are on the proverbial roll.
So, now, who do they play in the most important game an Ole Miss baseball team has played in decades?
Arkansas, that’s who. Full circle. The winner of Monday night’s 6 p.m. all-SEC matchup will be one victory away from the CWS best-of-three championship series. The loser drops into the losers’ bracket and must win three straight games without losing to reach the championship series.
If Ole Miss is the hottest team in the tournament – and the numbers say the Rebels are – then the Razorbacks are close behind. The Hogs have won four straight and Saturday afternoon crushed Stanford, the highest seeded team in the CWS, 17-2.
Arkansas, 44-19, has won six of seven games in the NCAA Tournament, losing only to Oklahoma State in the Stillwater Regional. The Razorbacks are an offensive machine, having slugged 102 home runs, including two among their 21 hits in the battering of Stanford.
“They can swing it, that’s for sure,” said Ole Miss freshman Hunter Elliott, the left-hander who will start Saturday night’s game. You gotta make pitches against them. If you make mistakes, they hit home runs.
“In the series we played against them, I think every run they scored came on home runs. That tells you they hit mistakes.”
Elliott, who is 19 years young, hasn’t made many mistakes lately. He allowed three hits and struck out 10 in a 5-0 Super Regional-clinching victory over Southern Miss. He pitched five innings of three-hit, one-run baseball against Miami in the Coral Gables Regional. Before hostile crowds and under intense pressure, he has been dominant in NCAA competition.
“It’s unbelievable what Hunter has done,” second baseman Peyton Chatagnier said. “It’s crazy really. He has so much confidence. It’s like he knows he’s going to get the job done.”
Catcher Hayden Dunhurst has watched Elliott’s freshman progression from a distance of just over 60 feet away.
“He’s gotten a lot better over the course of the season, and you can see it in his body language,” Dunhurst said. “He’s acting like a veteran not a freshman.”
Dunhurst said he noticed the unmistakable transformation happen in the second game of the three-game series at Arkansas. Ole Miss lost the game 6-3 but it was no fault of Elliott, who pitched well. Elliott allowed three runs on just four hits over six innings. He struck out eight and walked only one. All three Razorbacks runs against Elliott came on two home runs.
Said Dunhurst, “He got in a jam, but he worked his way out of it. You could see it happen. He kept his composure, held his head high and his shoulders back. He’s been that way since.”
Asked about how he felt about starting a true freshman in such a huge game as Monday night’s showdown with Arkansas, Bianco responded, “We have all the confidence in the world in Hunter right now. He’s earned it. It’s hard to do what he has done in the conference.”
Bianco pointed out that Elliott’s statistics – as impressive as they are – are even better when you consider the circumstances. The kid’s record is 4-3. His earned run average is a nifty 2.82. Opponents hit only .202 against him.
“But you gotta realize those statistics have largely come against SEC competition,” Bianco said. “We didn’t move him to the starting rotation until the conference season started. A lot of guys pad their numbers in the early season against lesser competition. Hunter didn’t have that luxury. His numbers are really good, but they are better than they look, actually.
“We knew he was going to be good. We knew he was going to be a weekend arm. That’s why we signed him. But we didn’t know when that was going to happen. We’ve had a lot of stars in this program that weren’t stars when they were freshmen.”
This freshman will make the most important start of his life before more than 25,000 people at the College World Series and before millions of viewers on ESPN. Will the stage be too big?
No, he says. There might be some pre-game butterflies, he admits.
Said Elliott, “But once you throw the first couple pitches, you just lock in and it’s just another game.”
Just another game? Just the most important game in Ole Miss history since long, long before he was born – if ever.