Baseball falls in SEC Tournament Championship game

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HOOVER, Ala. (Ole Miss Athletics) - Ole Miss baseball looked to be well on its way to its second straight SEC Tournament title Sunday afternoon at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, but the Rebels couldn't hold off a comeback bid from the top team in the Southeastern Conference.

Ole Miss jumped out to a 9-1 lead, but the No. 1 seed and regular-season SEC champion Vanderbilt Commodores chipped their way back, taking their first lead of the game on a walk-off single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Game Recap
Things couldn't have started off to a better start for the visiting Rebels.

The Ole Miss bats chased Vanderbilt starter Patrick Raby before he could even escape the first inning. The Rebels sent 10 batters to the plate in the opening frame, scoring six runs on three hits, four walks, and one Commodore error.

It all started with a pair of one-out walks dealt to Grae Kessinger and Tyler Keenan. Cole Zabowski was the first to send a run home, scoring Kessinger on the game's first hit, an RBI single into center field. Ryan Olenek then reached on an errant throw by Vanderbilt third baseman Austin Martin, allowing Keenan to score as the ball sailed into the outfield.

Then with two outs, the Rebels were able to expand on a strong first inning with four more runs. Cooper Johnson singled into right, scoring a run, before Raby walked back-to-back batters for the second time in the inning. A bases-loaded walk to Jacob Adams allowed Olenek to score and forced the Commodores to abandon their starting pitcher after just 0.2 IP. Thomas Dillard then put the icing on the cake with a two-RBI single into right, plating the fifth and sixth runs of the frame.

Ole Miss then put three more on the board over the next two innings. A double steal from first and third in the second inning sent Kessinger home on some nifty baserunning across the diamond. In the third, Kessinger was again responsible for some more damage, scoring a pair on a two-RBI single into left field.

At the midway point of the third inning, the Rebels led 9-1. Six games in six days, however, took its toll on the Ole Miss bullpen, and it showed as the high-powered Vanderbilt offense came alive to put up nine runs over the next four innings.

An RBI single notched the first Vanderbilt run of the day in the second inning, while they tacked on two more in the third after a double, single, and RBI groundout.

After allowing the first three batters to reach in the third inning, Phillips had his day come to an end after 2.0 IP. Though it didn't look like much on the stat sheet, he lasted an hour and a half into the ballgame on just three days' rest. Tyler Myers relieved Phillips, forcing a double play and a groundout to escape the frame.

If the first inning went to the Rebels, the fourth inning was all Vanderbilt's. The Commodores stormed back with a five spot in the inning, sending five runs home on four hits, all credited to Myers. The first three batters all reached on a single, walk, single, respectively, and all came around to score on a sac fly and later, a two-RBI single. Pat DeMarco of Vanderbilt did it in for Myers, homering to left to bring two more around and cut the Rebel lead to one.

Jordan Fowler had to finish the inning, appearing in his first game since May 14, and the lefty quickly forced a lineout to get out the frame.
The Rebels expanded on their lead in the top of the fifth after Johnson led it off with a double into left-center. Servideo then laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt, forcing an errant throw to first, which ultimately allowed Johnson to score from second on what would have been a routine sac bunt.

Vanderbilt, however, answered immediately in the bottom half with an infield single that plated an earlier double. Fowler made it two batters through the inning, but after allowing one to reach, made way for Will Ethridge's first relief appearance of the season. The usual Friday night starter for the Rebels was able to work two quick outs and strand a pair of Commodore runners.

Somehow, through all the chaos, Ole Miss still had the lead after five complete, though it wouldn't stand for long. A double down the line from Vandy's Harrison Ray tied the ballgame at 10 in the bottom of the sixth inning, completing an eight-run comeback from the Commodores.

Ethridge worked 1.2 innings with no earned runs allowed in his debut relief appearance, but after 36 pitches from the Rebel ace, Mike Bianco and Ole Miss turned to their go-to reliever Austin Miller for the seventh inning. With the appearance, Miller set a new school record for appearances in one season with 31.

Miller was tremendous for the Rebels, working out of a jam in the seventh with a strikeout to strand a pair of Commodores, before bouncing right back with a shutdown eighth inning. He struck out DeMarco, Stephen Scott, and Harrison Ray to retire the side in a tied ballgame, taking us to the ninth inning with the two teams knotted at 10.

The Rebels couldn't take advantage of Johnson's second double of the game in the top of the ninth, meaning the Commodores had a walk-off opportunity in the bottom of the ninth.

Miller, however, wasn't done yet. He struck out the first two he faced to make it six Commodores in a row who had fallen victim to the tall right-hander out of North Liberty, Iowa.

But when all was said and done, one thing proved true, that no lead is safe against the league's most dominant offensive lineup. Vanderbilt came in leading the SEC in nearly every major offensive category: batting average (.317), slugging percentage (.520), on-base percentage (.416), RBI (461) and runs (490).

After six straight strikeouts, Miller issued three straight walks to load the bases with two outs and give way to Olenek on the hill. Olenek's first pitch was sent back up the middle by Philip Clarke, allowing the game-deciding run to come home as the Commodores prevailed in walk-off fashion.

Ole Miss will now turn its attention to the NCAA Tournament. Shortly after the championship game defeat, Oxford was announced as one of 16 NCAA Regional host sites. The NCAA Tournament selection show will air at 11 a.m. CT on ESPNU, where the Rebels will learn their full draw.

Quick Hits
- Ole Miss fell to 37-24 on the season.
- The Rebels' 19 runs in back-to-back championship games are the most for one school in the SEC Tournament since Alabama scored 27 in 1996 and 1997.
- The six-run first inning was the most runs Ole Miss had scored in one inning at the SEC Tournament since May 26, 2004 against South Carolina, when Stephen Head and the Rebels scored six in the eighth inning on the Gamecocks.
- Jordan Fowler made his first appearance since May 14 today in relief in just his ninth appearance all year.
- Will Ethridge made his first relief appearance all year today in the 5th inning. He worked as the Rebels' go-to arm out of the bullpen in 2018, with 26 relief appearances a season ago.
- Cooper Johnson recorded just his third three-hit game of the season with a pair of doubles and a single today.
- The 7-seed Ole Miss knocked off three higher seeds en route to the finals.
- Vanderbilt and Ole Miss combined for the most runs since 1979 in the SEC Tournament Final with 21.
- Ole Miss tied an SEC Tournament record with six games played.