So close and yet … Arkansas and Ole Miss one step away from chance at history
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
OMAHA, Neb. — A shot at a championship. It’s so close. Like, as close as a tag/no tag super-slow-motion HD replay review at second base in a one-run game that has to be reviewed for five minutes. That kind of close.
For five and half days, a total of eleven Men’s College World Series games produced all the drama of a CoComelon marathon. The average margin of victory was 6.5 runs. Teams played. Teams won. Teams lost. Teams advanced. Teams went home. All wrapped up by the middle innings, game after game.
But in Wednesday night’s Game 12, a de facto national semifinal, Arkansas and Ole Miss ground it out in a 3-2 cleat-biter of a contest that was punctuated by a series of good bunts, bad bunts, web gems, timely blasts into the gap and the longest homer ever to rocket out of Charles Schwab Field. Then, in the ninth inning alone, there were strikeouts with the bases loaded, guys crashing into each other on a crucial short fly ball, a grounder in the hole that looked like a game-ender but instead drove in a run, followed by a would-be game-winning line drive that instead turned into the game-ending line-out. And oh yeah, they also had that big midgame review on the play at second.
“Well, you all have been saying we needed more drama in this series, and there you have it,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said after the loss. A win would have put his team into its first College World Series finals. “I know you and baseball fans out there wanted a close one. But I think I would have rather had another one of those big margins of victory!”
“Yeah, it was plenty close,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn added, speaking of the Ole Miss rally that scored a run in the bottom of the ninth and ended with the bases loaded over four consecutive at-bats. “Too close for comfort.”
Finally, a close game. Now the flagship schools of two states that are so close in proximity will be in close quarters once again, playing in a Thursday Game 13 elimination contest rematch (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and ESPN App) that has them both oh-so-close to facing Oklahoma in this weekend’s best-of-three championship series.
The cliché is “so close you can taste it.” These two teams know that taste all too well.
Van Horn’s entire career, a Hall of Fame résumé by any measure, has ultimately been a story of being close, a decades-long succession of standing at the precipice of a national title, only to have it slip away, sometimes literally. He became a folk hero in the state that hosts this series, leading the Nebraska Cornhuskers to Omaha in back-to-back seasons 2001-02 before leaving for Arkansas. This is his seventh trip to the College World Series with the Razorbacks and their runner-up finish of 2018, a game and title shot that vanished on a misplayed foul ball, a moment that has become for college baseball what the crashing ski jumper became for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The agony of defeat. Then last year, the Razorbacks were the No. 1 team in the land and lost in the super regionals at home against upstart NC State.
Ole Miss has never had that kind of shot. This is its sixth Men’s College World Series appearance and only its second since 1972. The Rebels came here this year with five MCWS wins. Ever. Until this week, they hadn’t been 2-0 in a series since 1956. But they were No. 1 in the nation in early spring 2022 and then vanished. They had injuries. They lost weekend series after weekend series in the cage match that is SEC baseball, at one point falling to 7-14 in the conference. They went one-and-done in the SEC Tournament. However, the next time they lost a game was Wednesday night, posting a perfect 7-0 postseason mark before their rally fell short against Arkansas.
But wait, where’s the closeness to be found in all that?
Wednesday night’s loss was Mississippi’s 13th game of season decided by two runs or fewer. It was the 19th for Arkansas. As if it wasn’t close enough already (the season series was 3-2 in favor of Ole Miss), Arkansas is even close when it comes to the number of close games it has to close out.
“We have been in so many close games all year and so many elimination games [four] this month alone, having our backs against the wall, that’s normal for us now,” explained Razorbacks DH Brady Slavens, he of the record-setting 436-foot homer to dead center in the fifth inning. “No one is going to have to coach us up or teach us how to get ready for a big, close game. We’ve been there and done that plenty.”
But they’ve never been here or done this, winning a national championship in the Men’s College World Series. Neither program has, in 150 combined seasons of trying. So, isn’t there stress in being so, well, close?
Bianco said no. “Woe is us, right? Now we get another chance to win a game that will give us a chance to play for a national title. We all play this game and coach this game with the goal and the dream of having those chances. Now it is right here, right in front of us. Both teams.”
The coach, in his 22nd season at Ole Miss, grinned, seemingly realizing that he was leaning directly into a sportswriter’s theme.
“Yeah, it’s just that close.”
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