OXFORD – The best three arms the Sun Belt Conference co-champions had seen turned out to be enough to keep the SEC’s co-champs unbeaten in the Oxford Regional.
Junior right-hander Phillip Irwin strung together five scoreless innings to set the tone, and No. 1 seed Ole Miss, ahead 7-0 in the sixth, hung on for a 7-4 win before a crowd of 9,110 at Swayze Field Saturday.
It is the 11th consecutive NCAA regional home victory for the Rebels (42-17), who will face the Missouri-Western Kentucky winner at 5 p.m. today. A win by Ole Miss secures the regional title. A loss sets up a winner-take-all match at 7 p.m. Monday.
Missouri eliminated Monmouth 9-0 earlier Saturday to move to today’s 1 p.m. game.
Ole Miss put up single runs in the second and third innings, but the big blow was a three-run home run to right field in the fifth by lefty designated hitter Matt Snyder, a freshman.
“Phillip was very dominant, very sharp. He didn’t look like a guy who hasn’t taken the mound in a couple of weeks,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “Offensively we did what we’ve done all year, and that’s get key timely hits. None was bigger than Snyder’s home run.”
Snyder had only two hits in his last 23 at-bats before the home run.
Ole Miss out-hit Western Kentucky 13-12, led by Logan Power, who was 3-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored.
The Toppers (40-19), averaging 8.8 runs a game, scored 11 against Missouri in Friday’s opener.
But Irwin threw his curve, fastball and change-up in the zone, and it took the Toppers’ boppers time to adjust.
“It didn’t feel like I’d taken two weeks off. My arm was fresh. I threw an intra-squad a week ago and felt fine then,” Irwin said. “When you’ve got seven runs of support it takes a lot of pressure off.”
David Goforth picked up a key out to end the seventh, and Jake Morgan threw two innings of one-hit, shutout relief for his ninth save. He retired the heart of Western’s order in succession in the ninth.
“That’s probably the best three arms we’ve seen this year,” Western Kentucky coach Chris Finnwood said.
Irwin survived trouble in the third. The Toppers put runners at the corners with their second single, a hit-and-run effort by nine-hole hitter Casey Dykes.
Irwin got a strikeout of leadoff hitter Matt Payton, but loaded the bases for Chad Gaynor – the team leader with 23 home runs – when he hit Matt Hightower. Gaynor got some lift on a 2-2 fastball but flied to left, and Irwin stranded three.
He was less lucky in the sixth when Gaynor doubled and Oxford native Chad Cregar homered, and it was 7-2.
Singles by Payton and Gaynor in the seventh set the table for Matt Rice, whose basehit to left made it 7-4 and finished Irwin.
Goforth gave up a leadoff walk in the eighth, and Bianco went quickly to Morgan. The Rebels’ closer gave up a one-out single but got called strikeouts against Payton and Hightower, leaving Gaynor on deck as the tying run.
In the ninth, Gaynor was the first of three fly ball outs.
“We expected to be in this position,” Morgan said. “At the beginning of the year this is where we wanted to be. Tomorrow will be just another game. We know we deserve to be here.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal