Dougherty’s Fast Start, Late Home Runs Push Ole Miss Closer to Title
OMAHA — With staff ace Dylan Delucia having been used to win the bracket final game against Arkansas, Mississippi coach Mike Bianco had a decision to make on the mound for game one of the College World Series finals against Oklahoma.
One option was freshman lefthander Hunter Elliott, who along with DeLucia had a huge hand in turning Ole Miss’ season around and getting the team to the College World Series.
But that option wasn’t necessarily ideal, because Elliott pitched just five days ago against the Razorbacks and threw 100 pitches. And if Ole Miss felt like it was imperative that it win whatever game Elliott started anyway, it makes sense to push him back to give him the most rest possible.
Bianco instead made the choice to hand the ball to righthander Jack Dougherty.
“They're a very patient team. They walk a lot. And felt that we needed somebody that was going to fill up the strike zone,” Bianco said. “Of the guys that were available, I thought he was the best guy to do that.”
It’s been an up-and-down season for Dougherty, who auditioned for the rotation earlier this season and made three starts before sliding back to the bullpen, but he came into Saturday’s game pitching extremely well.
Going back to his May 6 appearance against Missouri, he’d stacked up five straight scoreless outings, totaling 12 innings. That brought his ERA down to 5.08 from a peak of 7.33 after he gave up three runs in 2.1 innings of relief against Arkansas on April 30.
“Coach B grabbed me before the game and said ‘just be you. Go out, attack with your fastball, get ahead in counts, and just pitch like you pitch, and you'll be successful,’ ” Dougherty said.
Bianco was right about that, as Dougherty continued his run of good form Saturday in a 10-3 win over the Sooners to push the Rebels one win away from their first national title.
His stat line says that he threw five innings, giving up three hits and two runs with one walk and six strikeouts, but that really doesn’t do justice to how good he was.
He went 15 up and 15 down over the first five innings, and at one point struck out five batters in a row in the third and fourth innings.
The Sooners finally got to him in the sixth when the first three batters all singled to score a run, and after he walked the fourth batter he faced in the inning, John Spikerman, his day was done and he’d given Ole Miss all it could have asked for.
“I think he commanded his fastball,” said Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson of Dougherty. “Kind of kept them off balance, had a little ride life to his fastball. We didn't lay off of it. I think he really took the game over.”
Dougherty and the Rebels certainly seemed to handle the early moments of the game better than Oklahoma did, as they jumped out to a quick lead with the help of some shaky defense from the Sooners.
In the first inning alone, Oklahoma lefthander Jake Bennett uncorked two wild pitches and shortstop Peyton Graham committed an error, all of which directly contributed to two Ole Miss runs scoring.
Another wild pitch in the second inning, giving Bennett as many wild pitches in this single game as he had all season beforehand, helped Ole Miss add another tally, and the Rebels got a fourth run in the third on a Tim Elko solo home run. With the way Dougherty was throwing, that 4-0 lead after three innings felt much bigger than just four runs.
“Honestly, I don't think there was jitters at all,” said Oklahoma first baseman Blake Robertson. “I think they just came out hotter than we did. Had all the momentum, and they kept it going and took it throughout the rest of the game.”
The rally that chased Dougherty in the sixth also threatened to change the game, as the bases were loaded with no outs when freshman reliever Mason Nichols entered the game. Adding to the degree of difficulty for Nichols was that the Oklahoma hitter due up was Peyton Graham, who has been the best player on the field in just about every game he’s played in this postseason.
Nichols admittedly battled some butterflies as he entered in such a big spot, but he handled it with aplomb by striking out Graham, striking out Robertson behind him, and though he surrendered a run by walking Tanner Tredaway with the bases loaded, he ended the jam by getting Jimmy Crooks out on a comebacker. Suddenly, the game was close at 4-2 but with how sticky that situation was, it could have been a lot worse.
“For me I had plenty of butterflies,” Nichols said. “The biggest thing was that the coaches have been good enough to trust me and put me in those situations earlier in the year in big environments like Trustmark Park, Swayze (Field), those sort of places. So I was just focused on doing my job, and I'm glad I got it done.”
As it turns out, the game wasn’t close for very long.
In the top of the eighth, TJ McCants, Calvin Harris and Justin Bench connected for three consecutive home runs—the first time that’s been done in a CWS game since 1998—to put Ole Miss on top 8-2 and the air went right back out of the Oklahoma balloon.
The Ole Miss fans celebrated those homers by recreating the Swayze Field beer showers in the right field stands and what already felt like something close to a home game for the Rebels felt even more so in the moment.
“I would say there was probably 20,000 Rebels there,” Elko said. “It was an amazing environment. Super fun to play in. Just having all that support, it makes it a lot of fun to play. Shout out to our fans for making it up here to Omaha and making it a really cool experience so far.”
Oklahoma’s advantage going into this championship series was that it had a fully rested Jake Bennett ready to go for game one, but Ole Miss getting what it got from Dougherty and jumping on Bennett on the way to victory effectively takes that advantage away.
Oklahoma righthanders Cade Horton and David Sandlin, who are scheduled to start the next two games, are no cakewalk, but with Elliott ready to go on Sunday and only one more win to secure, the Rebels are positioned well.
“We still have another game to win,” Elko said. “It's obviously great to win the first one, but we still have one more to take home the whole thing. We’ll be rested up tomorrow, focused up, and ready to win one more.”