BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
A veteran pitcher’s inspiring start and a newcomer’s shining finish helped lift SEC Western Division-leading Arkansas to a 6-4 series-clinching win at Ole Miss on Saturday.
Junior starter Will McEntire fought off the flu to pitch into the fifth inning and freshman Gage Wood handled the final three frames as the Razorbacks (25-6, 8-4) won their fourth straight regular season series over the Rebels.
Dylan Carter also got four keys outs and Caleb Cali had a two-run homer and joined Tavian Josenberger and Jace Bohrofen with two hits each of Arkansas’ eight.
It was a huge win that came after the two teams split a doubleheader on Friday with Arkansas winning 11-2 and losing 7-4.
“This is a tough place to play, tough place to win,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “We’re super excited about it honestly. We get to fly home most of the time but this was the only one, and rightly so, that’s a bus trip.
“It’s about five and a half hours, so it’s gonna make the ride home a lot better for everybody. Everybody involved with the program.”
The series win coupled with South Carolina splitting two games and having the third one canceled with LSU (26-5, 7-4) left the Razorbacks a half-game ahead of the Tigers.
“You know baseball’s a funny game, man,” Van Horn said. “It’ll hurt you. It’ll humble you. It’ll make you happy. It’s just a lot of emotions.”
Defending national champion Ole Miss fell to 17-13 overall and 2-10 in SEC play.
“They’re struggling,” Van Horn said. We really just fought them. I’m sure they felt like over in their dugout that this was going to be their weekend to turn it all around and they probably will turn it around. I’m just glad we got our couple of wins at a minimum and we’re getting out of here.”
Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco was not looking for sympathy after the contest.
“Just to be truthful and candid you know, it’s a couple of things,” Bianco said. “…We hit some hard balls and they made some good plays and you can fall into trap of feeling sorry for yourself or feeling that it was just bad luck.
“But really this game has a way of evening it out. It’s not about the luck. The way you need to look at it is that we played hard and we gave ourselves a chance to win, but so did they, that Arkansas team.
“We just didn’t make enough pitches, we didn’t make enough plays. You look back and there were plays we could have made that would have kept runners off base or kept the score intact or made some pitches.”
Ole Miss had 10 hits and stranded five.
“On the other side of the ball, it was reversed as they made plays and got off the field,” Bianco said. “They made pitches and got off the field and didn’t allow us to have the big inning. That’s how you win the baseball game.
“We did that to them last night. They did it to us today. So at the end of the day, we competed hard, had some good performances by some guys, but not good enough. We have got to play better.
“Obviously it is disappointing to be where we are at, but we have got to play better. I know it sounds like cliche and coach speak, but at the end of the day, you have got to make more plays, make more pitches and your guys have got to get some bigger hits. We are not doing it enough to win these games.”
McEntire battled the flu this week, but gave his team a solid start.
“His health was the reason we TBAed it, or we would have put him in there,” Van Horn said. “If he hadn’t been sick at all, we probably would have thrown him in game 2. We were just trying to give him as long as we could before we started him. Another day of rest, another day of medicine, just to try to get a little bit stronger.”
“Then we didn’t know if we were going to pitch him until yesterday. We just felt like once we got through the day, and he felt better that another night of sleep that he’d be ready to pitch.”
Just as he did in Friday’s series opener, Cali got the scoring going with a homer, this one a solo shot in the third that was his fifth of the season.
Ole Miss tied it 1-1 in the fourth with a rally that started Ethan Groff led off with a walk and then raced to third as Calvin Harris was being thrown out by Cali trying to hustle his single into a double.
That became a key play as Anthony Calarco’s double only tied the game instead of giving the Rebels the lead.
“You know, obviously being at third I have a decent visual of the rest of the field,” Cali said. “The ball was coming in from Josenberger and from the feeling that I just got, just baseball timing, I knew he was going to be safe there (at third).
“And then I saw a kind of powder blue jersey running to second base. It was a key thing through my eye and I just tried to get it as quick as I can and let go of it and (Stovall) made a good tag.”
The Razorbacks responded with a pair of runs in the fifth to take a 3-1 advantage.
Cali walked, stole second, moved to third as John Bolton reached on an error and scored on a wild pitched.
He then looked from the dugout as on Stovall delivered an RBI single that plated Bolton.
Ole Miss tied it 3-3 in the bottom of the fifth and ended the day for McEntire right before Jacob Gonzalez greeted reliever Dylan Carter with a two-run blast.
Carter (5-0) handled the sixth inning and got the win when the Razorbacks put up two more runs in the seventh.
“That’s what we wanted him to do, was get us four outs,” Van Horn said of Carter. “Three anyway. Obviously he had to face Gonzalez … I mean, the guy is one of the best players in the country. He’s going to be a first-round draft choice. We felt like we were living on the edge with him, and he was on McEntire we felt like. And Mac was tired, so we pulled him.
“The pitch that left the yard was supposed to be a fastball on the outside corner out. It ended up being in the middle in. He just missed his spot on the wrong side. And a good hitter will make you pay for it, and that’s what he did.
But Dylan went back out there, got us through that sixth inning, and then obviously we turned the ball over to Gage. But those ended up being three really big outs there in the sixth. “
Cali led off the seventh with single, moved up on a passed ball and scored on Tavian Josenberger’s single.
Josenberger then came around to put Arkansas 5-3 when as he raced from first base to home as Peyton Stovall’s single was booted in right field.
Wood took over from there and did give up an RBI single in the seventh, but pitched scoreless eight and ninth innings.
“Yeah, it was great,” Wood said. “It’s something I’ve been working for a long time. And my name got called and I was ready to step up and do my job.
“But, yeah, I knew once we got those runs that I could keep them away and I could do my job and get us the win right there and not let them score. And yeah, I knew I could do it.”
Arkansas will host Little Rock Tuesday night at 6 p.m. and Wednesday at 4 p.m. before hosting Tennessee for a three-game series beginning Friday.