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Arkansas Outduels Ole Miss, Setting Up Final Showdown In Omaha

OMAHA – Lefthander Zack Morris arrived on the mound of Charles Schwab Field in the middle of a five-alarm fire in the bottom of the ninth inning. Arkansas held a two-run lead, but the bases were loaded with no outs. The Razorbacks needed a win to stay alive at the College World Series and force a rematch against the Rebels for a spot in the finals.

Morris, who two days prior gave up two runs and got just two outs in a start against Ole Miss, said he was as calm as he’s ever been coming into a game, despite the situation. The conversation on the mound with coach Dave Van Horn was short as he was handed the ball.

“Hey, man, can you do this?” Van Horn said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Ok, here you go. Go get it.”

Morris struck out pinch hitter Hayden Leatherwood for the first out. He got TJ McCants to fly out to left field for the second out, though that was not without drama as shortstop Jalen Battles and left fielder Jace Bohrofen collided as Bohrofen made the catch. An infield single from Justin Bench scored a run, but Battles made a strong play to keep the ball on the infield and possibly save a run. That brought Jacob Gonzalez, a likely first-round pick in 2023, to the plate. Gonzalez hit a 2-2 pitch off the end of his bat to Bohrofen in left field to end the game.

On the mound, Morris exhaled.

“I was like, ‘Ok, it’s over, we got it,’ ” he said.

Arkansas had held on for a 3-2 victory, setting up a second bracket final game Thursday afternoon. The winner will advance to the finals against Oklahoma. The loser will go home.

The game was tense throughout the night. The teams traded solo home runs in the second inning, with Chris Lanzilli going deep for Arkansas and Kemp Alderman responding for Ole Miss. The Razorbacks pushed ahead in the fifth inning with a mammoth solo home run from Brady Slavens that went 436 feet to dead center field. Only Pete Alonso and Dylan Busby had previously homered into the batter’s eye area in Charles Schwab Field during the CWS, which has been played in the ballpark since 2011. Arkansas got a key insurance run in the eighth inning on an RBI single from Michael Turner, which proved to be the difference.

In a CWS that has been short on drama (Wednesday’s game was the first to be decided by fewer than four runs), it was a night that stood out for its ending and the quality of pitching throughout.

“Tough one to lose, but I thought, probably from your perspective and from a fan's perspective, it was a heck of a college baseball game,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “Well played on both sides and certainly well pitched. On a day where I thought maybe the ball was flying a little bit better than it normally does here, so it will tell you how good all the guys that touched the mound pitched today.”

Both teams got five strong innings from their starters. Arkansas freshman lefthander Hagen Smith held Ole Miss to one run on two hits and four walks, striking out eight batters. Rebels senior lefthander John Gaddis held the Razorbacks to two runs on four hits and two walks, striking out four. Even once the starters were out of the game, both bullpens held steady, giving up just one run apiece.

Of the seven pitchers who took the mound Wednesday night, however, no one delivered a bigger outing than Morris. Not only did he wriggle out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam, he did so two days after getting knocked out in less than an inning by the same team.

Morris said he simply had to move past his poor appearance Monday. Later that night, he texted Van Horn to say he wanted the ball again. The Razorbacks didn’t need him Tuesday in a blowout win against Auburn, but when righthander Brady Tygart faltered in the ninth Wednesday, they were ready to go back to the lefthander.

Morris was determined not to let his teammates down.

“The start I had against these guys was not how I wanted it to go,” he said. “It made me mad, and I just wanted to come out and do better for these guys, these seniors. I didn’t want to be the reason they didn’t put this jersey on again. I just wanted to go out there and compete and that’s what I did.”

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Now, both teams will be in the same position Thursday. Their season is on the line and both teams will turn to their aces on four days rest with the opportunity to play for the national title on the line.

“If you would have asked four or five months ago in February, would you like this opportunity to have your ace on the mound in a winner-take-all to get you (to) the championship series, everybody would say yes,” Bianco said. “So, rather than look at what happened tonight, I think the thing is to flush this and to look forward to tomorrow with an opportunity to win and stay alive and be one of the last two teams competing for a national championship.”

Thursday will be the sixth meeting this season between Arkansas and Ole Miss. The two teams have proven to be remarkably well matched so far, with the Razorbacks holding a 3-2 advantage, but with the Rebels outscoring them 25-20 on aggregate.

With so little to separate the two teams and so much on the line Thursday in Omaha, the game promises to be must-see baseball.

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