Colby Bortles turned on a 3-1 fastball that exploded off of his bat and quickly headed for the outfield seating in left field. He flipped his bat up in the air and admired his work for a moment. It was this solo home run in the eighth inning of Ole Miss’ 10-8 win over Vanderbilt on Sunday that tied the game and set the stage for the Rebels to take control one last time.
“I was looking for a fastball, and I got it. I just put a good swing on it, and it felt good,” Bortles said. “I had to show everyone that it felt good.”
Four batters later, with Will Golsan standing on first base after a walk, Chase Cockrell – whose opportunities at the plate have been sparse in recent weeks – came off the bench cold and laced a fastball in the right field corner for a two-out RBI double that gave Ole Miss its first lead of the ball game. Cockrell was also looking fastball, knowing that Vanderbilt’s freshman lefty Zach King had been wavering with his slider, and when it came, the sophomore made the most of his chance.
“Coach B told me before the at-bat to look fastball and that he wasn’t confident in his slider,” Cockrell said. “So I just looked fastball and was willing to adjust.”
Cockrell was the hero in a game of many twists and turns in which Ole Miss needed starters, pitchers and bench players to step up when called upon.
“Just with their left hander, who predominantly throw fastballs, I just wanted to make sure he got some swings off and try to be on time and get your best swing off,” Bianco said. “He hasn’t had many opportunities the last couple of weeks, but certainly proud of him and the way he capitalized today.”
The game required 12 pitchers between the two teams, and all 15 position players that Ole Miss dressed out participated.
“Obviously it was nice to win,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “But to win this way, where we didn’t pitch well, and certainly we needed offense today. We scored eight runs in the last four innings. Even after getting close or tying it up, letting them back in the game. But credit them. I thought they were much better offensively today. We didn’t pitch well, but they were much better offensively.”
Neither starter made it five full innings, and Ole Miss’ Will Ethridge was pulled in the third after Vanderbilt touched him up for five runs on six hits including a three-run fourth inning that was his last. Vanderbilt led 5-2 after four innings. After trading runs in the bottom of the fifth and top of the sixth, Ole Miss struck for three runs in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game 6-6.
“We needed the offense today to stay in the game like that. It seemed like outs were hard to come by,” Bianco said. “It was hard for both teams to get on a roll and have a one-two-three inning. It just seemed like there were walks, HBPs, base hits, and our guys hung in there.”
Vanderbilt quickly regained the lead in the top half of the on a J.J. Bleday two-run shot to right field. Tim Rowe answered that in the bottom half of the inning with a pinch-hit home run of his own to a similar spot.
After Dallas Woolfolk put up a zero in the top half of the eighth inning, Bortles’ and Cockrell’s heroics gave Ole Miss its first lead since the first inning. Woolfolk then mowed down three Vanderbilt hitters in the ninth for a six out save that clinched a series win to begin SEC play for the Rebels.
This was a strange series for a young team that has struggled to hit the baseball for the better part of the last 10 games. Ole Miss grinded out a 1-0 win on Friday night. That was the pitching staff’s fifth consecutive game without allowing a run, an almost unheard of mark. But for as much was made from the pitching, it wasn’t quite at the level it has been despite the shutout on Friday night. The offense didn’t spark much on Saturday, and the Rebels lost 6-2 in a sloppy game. But the bats finally came alive on Sunday against one of the best pitching staffs in the country.
“You look at the last four innings, and we score eight runs in the last four innings and even after getting close or tying it up, letting them back into the game. But credit them, much better today offensively. We didn’t pitch well the first two days, but we pitched them smart,” Bianco said. “Today, they made it much tougher. They made adjustments at the plate.”
When a younger team has a tough stretch at the plate like the one Ole Miss endured over the last 10 games, it can be easy to lose confidence. But some of the veteran leaders help it stay the course, and this team can now chalk up a series win against one of the preseason favorites to win the national championship.
“We had to score eventually. I think (assistant coach Mike) Clem(ent) said it best: The last two games we put good ABs together, had runners on, we were just waiting for that big hit, that big double in the gap, to clear the bases,” Bortles said. “We just kept at at it and kept putting good swings together.”