Arkansas junior Zack Morris, pitching in relief in a harrowing ninth inning, shut down an Ole Miss rally Wednesday night as the Razorbacks held on to beat the Rebels 3-2 at the College World Series.
“Everyone in the dugout had faith in him,” Arkansas starting pitcher Hagen Smith said in a post-game interview with reporters on-site in Omaha, Neb. “Nerves were high. But we knew he was going to get out of it.”
By claiming the victory, the Razorbacks forced a deciding game Thursday against the Rebels, with the winner advancing to play the Oklahoma Sooners in the championship round.
The best-of-three championship round will start on Saturday night. Earlier Wednesday, Oklahoma earned the right to play for the title by beating the Texas A&M Aggies.
In the night game, the Razorbacks took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, only to see the Rebels open the frame by loading the bases with a single and two straight batters hit by pitch.
Morris entered the game in relief at that juncture and struck out Hayden Leatherwood.
The next batter, TJ McCants, flied out. One out away from a loss, the Rebels found life when Justin Bench’s RBI single drove in a run.
The ball was hit into the hole between third and short. Gliding toward his right, Arkansas shortstop Jalen Battles gloved it and kept it from going into the outfield, which likely prevented a second run — the tying run — from scoring.
At the same time, the San Antonio Madison High School alumnus had no other play to make after fielding the ball, and so the bases remained loaded.
Ole Miss’ Jacob Gonzalez was up next, with the game hanging in the balance. Arkansas was one out away from winning, but it also remained a possibility that a two-run single could end its season.
Gonzalez swung and struck the ball well. Slicing into left field, it was caught by Zack Gregory for the last out.
“Zack (Morris) has been clutch for us all year,” Arkansas designated hitter Brady Slavens said. “He’s done a great job. We all had faith in him. We all had belief in him. You know, he didn’t have the best start the other day. But he came out and proved himself tonight.”
With the teams tied in the early innings, Slavens’ 436-foot solo home run to center field in the top of the fifth staked Arkansas to a 2-1 lead.
“I guess I was just looking for a fastball over the plate,” Slavens said. “Luckily I got it. It might be the farthest home run I’ve ever hit. I don’t know. Not sure.”
In the deciding game, Ole Miss is expected to start ace Dylan DeLucia, who beat Auburn on the second day of the tournament last Saturday.
“We’re going to have to really fight,” Slavens said. “It’s going to take all of us to win.”