OXFORD, Miss. — The long ball is back for the Tulane baseball team, and so is the possibility of an extended stay in the Oxford regional.
Catcher Jake Rogers launched a one-out, no-doubt two-run homer over the bullpen and into the stands behind the left-field wall in the top of the ninth inning as the Green Wave rallied for a dramatic 6-5 victory on Saturday afternoon at Swayze Field, eliminating top-seeded host Ole Miss.
Rogers’ big blast was the last momentum change in a pulsating game with five lead changes between two prideful teams that did not want to go home early. After crushing a fastball about five feet wide of the left field foul pole a few pitches earlier, he got all of a two-strike, hanging slider on the outside of the plate.
Ole Miss pitcher Will Stokes went into a crouch. Left-fielder Kyle Watson slumped against the bullpen fence.
Rogers ran around the bases in his normal home run trot but could not even recall how he reacted after giving the Wave a chance to play at least another game.
“I kind of blacked out a little bit, but it was fun,” he said. “It was good. He kind of hung one and I got enough on it to help the team win.”
Tulane (40-20) faces No. 4 seed Utah in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Sunday, with the winner advancing to a 5 p.m. contest against No. 3 seed Boston College, which beat the Utes 4-3 on Saturday to move to 2-0 in Oxford. The Green Wave still needs to win three more times to take the regional, but the top-10 ranked Rebels and their 10,000-strong fans won’t be in the way.
“I was actually standing by the bat rack with my bat and my helmet getting ready to hit myself when he (Rogers) hit it,” said first baseman Hunter Williams, who homered in his first two at-bats. “I didn’t even know what to say. Everyone was going crazy.”
Neither team led by more than one run at any time, but Ole Miss (43-19) appeared to strike the decisive blow on shortstop Errol Robinson’s two-out, two-strike, two-run single through the hole between third base and shortstop off Corey Merrill in the seventh.
Stokes, the Rebels’ closer, retired Tulane easily in the eighth and struck out pinch hitter Matt Rowland to start the ninth in an electric atmosphere at Swayze Field.
That’s when the Wave dug in at the top of the batting order. Shortstop Stephen Alemais fouled off some pitches with two strikes before drawing a walk, and Rogers made Stokes (2-1) throw several more before taking him out of the park.
“We just never gave up, and Stephen had a great quality at-bat,” coach David Pierce said. “He laid off the outside fastball (on ball four) and he fought through four pitches before that. Without that, we’d probably still be playing right now.”
After Tulane fell behind 1-0 in the first inning, Williams gave the Wave the jolt it needed with a mammoth home run off Ole Miss lefty David Parkinson to start the second. Two innings later, Williams blasted another homer to almost the same spot as Tulane went ahead for the first time in the regional.
Those were home runs 61 and 62 for the year for the Wave—by far its most in the dead-bat era that started in 2011—and Williams’ seventh and eighth. Tulane did not hit any in its loss to Boston College, part of a late-season, strikeout-filled slump at the plate.
“I was just going up there and trying not to do too much,” Williams said. “I got good pitches to hit and took good swings on them.”
The Rebels responded with a pair of home runs in the fifth — the second one by ninth-hole hitter Kyle Watson — to reclaim the lead against Tulane senior starter Alex Massey.
Both teams scored twice in the seventh. Tulane nine-hole hitter Grant Brown, who started because the Rebels threw a lefty, tied it at 4 with a double to deep center field off right-handed reliever Connor Green and scored on Rogers’ single.
Merrill replaced Massey after a leadoff single in the seventh and allowed two more hits as Ole Miss went back ahead.
Given a second opportunity to close out the Rebels, Merrill (4-1) did the job, getting a strikeout and two weak grounders around a four-pitch walk. Alemais fielded the final ball and flipped to Jake Willsey at second base to send the Wave to Sunday.
“You live for the big stage and the big crowd,” Merrill said. “I was foaming at the mouth as soon as Jake hit that ball.”
The margin between ecstasy and heartbreak was tiny. Ole Miss, which was 38-0 when leading after six innings entering the SEC tournament, also fell 6-5 to Utah on Friday night after going ahead 5-2.
“It’s obviously hard to talk after this,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “I just told the kids that’s why it’s the greatest game on Earth. You have the thrill of victory and then it will just rip your heart out.”
Massey allowed four runs on six hits in six innings but put Tulane in position to win. Pierce said Massey’s brother, freshman Ross Massey (9-3, 2.40 ERA) will start the next elimination game Saturday.
Midweek starter J.P. France is rested and ready if the Wave plays a second game.
“We’re not done,” Williams said. “We’re trying to win this regional. We got to come out and win the game (Sunday) and keep playing from there, but we’re not ready to be done.”