College World Series: Down one more time, Ole Miss rallies one last time on the biggest stage of all

It would figure that the most unlikely NCAA Tournament run ever required Ole Miss to rally one more time to capture college baseball’s crown jewel for the first time in program history.

Playing from behind was a state of being for this Rebels team. College baseball’s national champion started 7-14 in the SEC, finished 14-16 and then lost its opening game of the SEC Tournament.

Some thought that loss would end the Rebels’ season — and perhaps the Mike Bianco era.

Firmly on the back edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Rebels were the last at-large team to make the field. By Sunday evening, they were the last team standing.

In the process, Ole Miss became the SEC’s 3rd consecutive (and different) College World Series champion and arguably the most unlikely. The CWS started in 1947; only 2 other champions had more losses than these Rebels (42-23).

But, as their 10-1 record in the NCAA Tournament would prove, they refused to lose when it mattered most.

They were the SEC’s lone regional seed below a No. 2 — so they had to beat 2 favored teams to advance out of the regional. They had to play at a No. 1 seed in the Super Regional. They blew through their half of the CWS bracket but had to stave off elimination in a win-or-go-home bracket final against Arkansas. They won, 2-0.

And even after beating Oklahoma in Game 1 of the finals, Ole Miss doubtlessly recognized that 5 of the previous 6 CWS winners had lost Game 1.

So when the 8th inning of Game 2 found the Rebels trailing 2-1, there were still — even after the greatest, most unlikely run in the history of the sport — plenty of people ready to write off the Rebels. All Ole Miss had to do was dig deep one more time, put together one more rally from underdog status … in the biggest situation of all.

After Hayden Dunhurst struck out, Game 1 hero TJ McCants hit a single. At the time, it was just another single. But it became even bigger when Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson used the occasion to pull pitcher Cade Horton. Horton had held the Rebels to a single run and just 4 hits in 7 1/3 innings, fanning 13 batters. But once Johnson gave Horton the hook, it was officially rally season once more for the Rebels.

Justin Bench, the most devastatingly consistent bat on the squad, lined a single, sending McCants to third. Rebels shortstop Jacob Gonzalez then delivered the biggest blow, following with a single to right, tying the game and sending Bench to third.

From there, was it not inevitable that the Rebels would find a way?

With Ole Miss facing an Oklahoma team noted for its prowess on the base paths, its ability to freak out opposing catchers, pitchers and defenses, how else could the winning run score? Bench, alertly awaiting his opportunity from less than 90 feet away, pounced when Oklahoma relief ace Trevin Michael spiked a wild pitch. Ole Miss 3, Oklahoma 2. Yes, the Rebels brought it another run — Gonzalez scored on another wild pitch. But the biggest half-inning in Ole Miss history had finished. No 450-foot Tim Elko blasts — the championship rally was built with 3 singles and a pair of wild pitches.

Yes, there was much more to praise on this day. Hunter Elliott worked valiantly for the Rebels in the starting role and has established himself as a force to be reckoned with in SEC seasons to come. Hayden Dunhurst and the Ole Miss pitchers neutralized the Sooners’ running game. John Gaddis got the biggest out of the season to hold the Sooners’ edge at a single run in the 7th inning. Brandon Johnson struck out the side in the 9th to slam the championship door.

But the defining moment of this team was once more finding a way to dig out of a hole. That Ole Miss consistently did so in June was impressive. That they found a hundred different ways to do so was astonishing. Whether it was Elko outslugging everyone, CWS Most Outstanding Player Dylan DeLucia pitching a game for the ages, or one last singles-and-base running rally, the Rebels team that had been bested so frequently early in the season found endless ways not to lose.

In their biggest game of all, they again stared defeat in the eyes and defeat blinked. What a team, what a season, what a legacy.