In its second midweek matchup of the 2018 season, Ole Miss baseball defeated Murray State 7-6 in walk-off fashion at Swayze Field on Tuesday.
With the game tied at six in the bottom of the ninth, Ole Miss’ Thomas Dillard, who went three for four with three RBIs on the day, stepped up and stole the show. Leading off the inning with a single that poked through the right side, Dillard then advanced to third, thanks to a pair of walks. With the bases loaded, the Racers’ closer sent a wild pitch past his catcher and toward the stands. The erratic throw sent 6-foot, 235-pound Dillard scrambling for home. Barreling down the third-base line, he beat the tag and brought the dugout onto the field to celebrate.
“I knew I was safe,” Dillard said of the play that won Ole Miss its eighth straight game and kept the team undefeated. “It was a close play, but coach was telling me to be ready for anything, to be ready for a passed ball, so I listened to him and got in there.”
After throwing four innings in his first collegiate start last Tuesday against Memphis, Houston Roth took the mound again for Ole Miss. Starting the game with a pair of strikes, he quickly found himself in trouble.
After walking the leadoff man, an error in the outfield left two runners on base for Davis Sims. The Murray State infielder stepped into the box and hit a homerun over the left-field wall to put the Racers up 3-0 with no outs. Roth continued to battle, recording two strikeouts, but a walk and two doubles inflated the first half-innings’ score to 4-0. Ole Miss could not convert in the bottom half, and the score remained the same through the first.
Returning to the mound after a tough first inning, Roth found his groove and retired 13 of the next 16 batters he faced. Throwing 80 pitches over five complete innings, the right-hander struck out six Racers and surrendered just four runs before Austin Miller entered in his relief.
“One of the big storylines is how (Roth) hung in there,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “It showed why he’s a freshman All-American, and that really may have won the game right there.”
At the plate, the Rebels, who scored 46 runs through their first seven games of the season, found themselves able to get runners on base but could not convert through the first three innings. That changed quickly in the fourth, when a Cole Zabowski double scored Dillard from second and tallied the first run for the Rebels.
Their bats stayed hot in the fifth when Grae Kessinger led the inning off with a single, and Ryan Olenek doubled to put two in scoring position. Nick Fortes walked to load the bases before Dillard returned and cleared the bases to tie the game.
“The pitcher that came in started throwing harder than I thought so took the first pitch,” Dillard said on his at-bat. “He threw me a changeup, and luckily, I was able to get my head out and hit it down the line.”
After stealing third, Dillard scored on a Chase Cockrell single to take a brief 5-4 lead.
Neither team was able to score in the sixth, but a walk, bunt, fielder’s choice and fielding error put two in scoring position for the Racers at the top of the seventh. A single would score the only run of the inning and tie the game at 5-5.
“We had a big rally in the fifth there, but then they answered back,” Bianco said. “They executed to get a bunt down. We got a little too aggressive and probably should have thrown the ball to first base. But you have to hand it to them – they played really hard tonight and could have easily won this game.”
In a long top half of the eighth, Murray State took a 6-5 lead on a dropped third strike, and Ole Miss tagged the secondary runner in a rundown between second and third base to end it.
With the Rebels down one, the bats went to work with two outs for the second time in the game as Olenek stroked a fastball that plated Kessinger and tied the game at 6-6 en route to the ninth inning.
With nothing going in the top of the ninth, it was Ole Miss and Dillard who ultimately captured the one-run win in the bottom half.
“The whole game, everything offensively seemed like it started or finished with (Dillard),” Bianco said. “He did it all tonight.”
The Rebels will venture out of town for the first time this season Thursday and head west to California for a weekend series against a formidable 2017 Super Regional team in Long Beach State, who sits under .500 on the young season.
“Anyone that follows college baseball knows that Long Beach is a perennial powerhouse on the West Coast,” Bianco said. “It’s going to be a big test for us on the road.”
The series will begin at 8 p.m. CST on Friday.