Mike Bianco has said more than once this year that the Southeastern Conference is a humbling league. The events that lead to and followed Walker Pennigton’s pinch-hit, three-run home run in the 8th inning that doomed Ole Miss in a 12-8 loss in the SEC Tournament semifinals, gave them a taste of that.
“Just an incredible college baseball game,” Bianco said. “If you thought these games didn’t matter, then you were certainly wrong. I thought both teams played their hearts out today.”
The roller coaster that was the top half of the eighth inning was the final twist of a four-hour long marathon that featured two teams with a heavily taxed pitching staff, and for Ole Miss, a great deal at stake.
“What happened in the eighth (inning), hasn’t happened all year,” Bianco said. “It was a tough one to swallow.”
The Rebels came into the game teetering on the fence of earning a national seed, and a win would have likely pushed them to safety on the other side.
Chad Smith took the ball the ball just a few minutes away from his childhood home, and faced arguably the most dangerous lineup in the country in Texas A&M, and the Aggies got after him early.
“I thought Smith gave us a great effort,” Bianco said.
After retiring the first two batters, Boomer White drew a two-out walk that led to another free pass to Ryan Birk, and after a Michael Barash double, the Aggies were on the board. Another run came across on a Will Golsan error, sending Ole Miss to the dugout trailing 2-0 after the opening frame.
Both teams traded runs in the bottom half of the second and top half of the third, before the game reached the first of two major turns in the form of a five-run third inning from the Rebels, all of them coming with two outs.
Ryan Olenek got behind Texas A&M right hander Chase Vines 0-2, before fighting off pitch after pitch that led to an RBI base hit. Kyle Watson followed with a base hit that pated two more and gave Ole Miss its first lead of the game at 4-3. Holt Perdzock scored from third while Watson stole second base, and Errol Robinson poured it on with a base hit, making it 6-3. Watson was was 2-3 and Robinson was 4-6 with 4 RBIs.
“I thought we had great at bats,” Bianco said. “I thought our kids were terrific offensively. I thought we were great on base and taking the extra base.”
Texas A&M chipped away with a run in the fourth and fifth, before Ole Miss got a breath of air on another base hit from Robinson that pushed Watson across. It was 7-5 after five innings.
Dallas Woolfolk relieved Smith, and his 3.1 innings of one-run ball bridged the game to the eighth, with Ole Miss picking up another insurance run by way of Robinson’s third RBI single of the game.
“Having the day off helped the pitchers get rested,” Woolfolk said. “I tried to go out there and give my defense and my team a chance to make good plays, and fill up the strike zone.”
The eighth inning brought the game to a final shift in direction, and given the circumstances, it was a bit unexpected. Ole Miss was 38-0 when leading after the sixth inning this season, and was ahead 8-5. Its junior closer, Wyatt Short, relieved Woolfolk following a Boomer White ground rule double. Short had anchored one of the SEC’s most dominant bullpens all year, and the situation appeared to be manageable for the left hander.
Short issued a four-pitch walk to Birk. A Barash base hit followed, and made the score to 8-6. A Jonathan Moroney single up the middle turned it into a one-run game, and Rob Childress decided to go to his bench. He sent Walker Pennington to the plate in a pinch hit situation, and it was the junior outfielder who would alter the course of the game one final time.
Pennington sent a Wyatt Short fastball over the left field fence for a three-run home run that knocked down the door the Rebels had left open with Short’s uncharacteristically shaky outing. It capped off a five-run inning, giving the Aggies a 10-8 lead that it would not surrender.
“People notice he struggled because of how good he is,” Robinson said of Short. “Every time he goes out there, he gives us the best chance. I wouldn’t call it a struggle. It’s baseball, sometimes things don’t go our way.”
Two more in the ninth poured additional salt Ole Miss’ wound and the Aggies won a marathon, 12-8.
“I’ve said a few times this week that it’s a very humbling league,” Bianco said. “Texas A&M is so, so good. We left the door open a bit, and they ran through it.”