I moved into a new place in Oxford this week, and I had some folks over to watch Ole Miss take on Arizona in game three of the Tucson Super Regional on Sunday.
I have a great group of friends, including my roommates, and I was excited to have a small gathering at my apartment. I love baseball, and while that can’t be said for all of my friends, I was expecting a pretty good time to be had.
By the end of the fourth inning, I knew if we had a good time, it wouldn’t be due to the baseball game.
Ole Miss trailed the Arizona Wildcats 10-1 after four innings of play, which was not ideal in any sense of the word. I’d be lying if I said I watched the whole game after that point. I had seen this movie before, and I knew how it ended: Ole Miss was going to lose game three of a super regional and head home, falling just short of the College World Series.
To fulfill my contractual obligations, I will talk about the game a little bit but that’s not my main point today. Starting Taylor Broadway was the right move by Mike Bianco - it didn’t work out but doesn’t mean it was a wrong decision. Broadway was the Rebels’ best shot at stifling Arizona’s potent lineup early in the game, and Mike knew that, so he made the right call. Rebel fans should sleep better knowing our coach played to win and thought outside the box.
The bottom line is that Ole Miss (45-22) didn’t hit well enough to win regardless of how well it pitched, and Arizona hit better than necessary for a win. That’s it - Arizona, frankly, was the better baseball team, as much as that sucks to say. Ole Miss was good, but Arizona was better.
Usually, I’d be pretty mad at this result, especially with a team holding as much talent on the roster as Ole Miss does. On Sunday night, however, I felt different.
I’m not going to make the joke that “maybe the real baseball is the friends you make along the way” because that’s not true. You play baseball to win the games. Period. You can debate amongst yourselves as to whether or not Bianco has done a good enough job at Ole Miss when it’s mattered. I think there are cases to be made on both sides of the argument.
For me, going to the College World Series for the first time since 2014 would have been cool, but that’s not where I found my mind resting on Sunday. I found myself thinking about all that this team had been through in 2021. If you had told me a few months ago that Ole Miss would come one game shy of Omaha without a healthy Gunnar Hoglund, Max Cioffi or Tim Elko, I would have called you crazy. I might have called you crazy if you told me that Ole Miss hosted a regional in that scenario, but they did both of those.
The story of Elko playing on essentially one leg this postseason became a national talking point, and Ole Miss had a real shot at making it to the CWS even without these key pieces. That’s pretty special.
This team had flaws, sure. There wasn’t enough pitching depth. Some bats in the lineup were streaky at best, and at worst, they were not dependable when it mattered most. Even so, you can’t help but be proud of what this team was able to accomplish after all of the adversity it faced this season. I can’t help it, anyway.
Then, there’s this.
In what could very well be his last at-bat as an Ole Miss Rebel, Elko comes to the plate in the top of the ninth in a blowout in game three of a super regional. The Rebels have no shot at winning this game, and Tim knows that this is the last time he’ll step into the batter’s box before surgery on torn ACL.
Elko has hit home runs on one leg this season. He’s walked. He’s hit singles. But what he does in this final at-bat is more impressive to me than all of that.
Curtain call for the man who has shown us over and over again what it means to be an Ole Miss Rebel. pic.twitter.com/irMAMcIWV5— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) June 14, 2021
He legged out a double.
Elko wears that “C” on his chest for a reason. Even in a game that was already decided and on one healthy leg, Tim Elko didn’t stop running and striving, and this energy embodies the overall spirit of this 2021 team. Even after the Rebels were faced with seemingly-insurmountable obstacles in front of them, the team kept going. I think that’s pretty special.
There will be plenty of time in the days ahead to discuss what should be done about Bianco. I’d be amiss if I didn’t say that there are whispers, stirrings even, of the head coach taking the LSU job if it’s offered to him. Who knows? What I do know is that, even if you don’t think he’s the right man for the job, he did one of the best coaching jobs I’ve ever seen this season in holding this team together when it seemed that everything was about to tear apart at the seams. And for that, we should be grateful.
Back to the gathering at my apartment last night. As I sat in my new home surrounded by people I care about, I realized that, even though the score wasn’t what we had hoped for, the real fun came from being with each other. They don’t give out participation trophies in baseball, and I’m not at all saying that winning isn’t important, especially with a trip to Omaha on the line. But I am saying that when I look back on this 2021 season, I won’t remember the bad times. I’ll remember how the Rebels overcame the bad times. I’ll remember sitting in my apartment with my friends watching Elko chugging his way to second base when he could have just stood still at first.
It’s things like last night that make this job worth having, as weird as that sounds, and I hope you can look back on this season in the same way.