By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
OXFORD, Miss. – True to their fun-loving, seat-of-their-pants persona, the Huskies are taking the long, adventurous way through their first NCAA tournament in a decade.
First, UW shook off a thrilling loss to host Ole Miss 2-1 Sunday afternoon. Then the Dawgs shrugged off an early, 2-0 hole Sunday night against Georgia Tech for a scrappy, 4-2 win in an elimination game of the Oxford regional, behind the bats of Robert Pehl and Andrew Ely, plus four scoreless innings of relief from Trevor Dunlap to end it.
Now comes the real fun. The Huskies (41-16-1) advanced to Monday’s championship round to play Ole Miss (43-18) -- again -- at noon Pacific time inside wild Swayze Field, knowing they have to beat the Rebels twice to advance to next week’s best-of-three super regionals.
If they win the first, afternoon challenge using a hodgepodge of relievers as their pitchers in front of packed, roaring crowd in this baseball-mad town, the Dawgs would get the Rebels again at 5 p.m. for the right to move on.
Washington has never reached a super regional since the current, 64-team tournament format began in 1999.
"We're right there," Ely said of his mindset on getting the Rebels again. "If we can play defense the way have all year (all did again Sunday), if we can get the pitching like we have all year and if we can get the timely hit that we weren't able to get against them (Sunday afternoon), I think we can beat these guys."
About that pitching.
When I asked coach Lindsay Meggs what his options on the mound might be for Monday, the Huskies' fifth-year turnaround artist and Pac-12 coach of the year smiled and asked back "How do you feel?"
The infinitely more-qualified Tyler Davis, the All-Pac-12 and second-team All-America ace, threw 103 pitches Saturday in a complete game four-hitter for UW's first-ever postseason shutout. Davis has told Meggs he can go Monday. The coach just laughed at that.
Yet, hey, stranger things have happened.
To start Monday afternoon Washington is likely to cobble together a committee of available relievers. Brandon Choate retired the only two batters he faced Sunday night and did not pitch at all in the first two games of this regional. Zach Wright, who has started three games this season, has yet to pitch here. Neither has Dae Yang Kim, Alex Nesbitt -- or nine-save closer Troy Rallings, who warmed up for the ninth inning Sunday night then watched Dunlap finish off Tech instead.
“The key is to try to get a few innings out of whoever starts,” Meggs said.
“You’ll see everybody.”
Meggs just smiled again and raised his eyebrows at that?
Two key hits kept the Huskies’ season alive Sunday night.
Pehl’s bases-loaded single with one out in the sixth scored Brian Wolfe, after Wolfe had singled. That put UW up 3-2. The Huskies added their fourth run in the next at-bat when Chris Baker’s high-chopper groundout to first base scored Branden Berry.
The bigger blow came in the third. Ely, the nation’s leader in sacrifice bunts, drilled a two-run, two-out home run to tie the game. His third home run of the season and first since April 16 awakened the Huskies from an early game snooze and perhaps a hangover from losing the taut game to Ole Miss only an hour or so earlier.
UW starter Jared Fisher grinded through 4 1-3 innings and got a huge play from freshman third baseman Chris Baker to get out his shaky first inning. After Fisher, Brandon Choate (4-1, a perfect 2-3 of an inning) and Dunlap were nearly flawless in UW’s first extended bullpen work of the weekend.
The Huskies seemed out of sorts to begin the bottom of the first, when Georgia Tech had the first two men reach on a grounder and low throw to first base by Erik Forgione that Branden Berry couldn’t catch then a sacrifice-bunted ball that Fisher threw into the helmet of the runner at first base.
Then came a rain shower that delayed the game for 30 minutes. The delay cooled Fisher to the point that he walked three consecutive batters, the last two to force in the game’s first two runs.
Then freshman third baseman Chris Baker made a game-turning play with the bases still loaded. He took a hard one-hopper by Georgia Tech’s Brandon Gold off his chest, got through the stun of that, stepped on third base and threw a strike to Berry at first for an inning-ending double play to keep the Huskies behind just 2-0.
“That was a huge play,” said Meggs, who called his freshman “a shortstop playing third base who is growing up before our eyes.”
Baker also made many more fine plays later in the game going to his left and to his right, diving and leaping and generally making the Yellow Jackets madder than hornets.
That play in the first by Baker became even bigger in the third. After Braden Bishop walked to reach for the seventh consecutive time in two days against Tech, UW’s No.-2 hitter Ely drilled his first home run since April 16. The towering drive deep into the Huskies’ bullpen beyond right field with Braden tied the game at 2.
Not bad for a guy who leads nation in sacrifice bunts.
“I got a 3-2 pitch right down the middle,” Ely said with a modest shrug. “That let our guys settle down, because we were pressing a little bit when we were down early 2-0.”
In last two days Tech had just nine hits and two runs in 18 innings against Davis and Sunday night’s three pitchers.
OLE MISS 2, UW 1
In the afternoon, UW starter Jeff Brigham was as gritty as he was great, allowing just two runs in seven innings in stifling heat and pressure. But Washington’s bats couldn’t breakthrough with the timely hits they produced a day earlier, and host Ole Miss beat the Huskies 2-1 in the winner’s-bracket game of the Oxford regional at rockin’ Oxford-University Stadium.
The decisive hit was a solo home run in the fifth inning by Ole Miss’ Auston Bousfield off a 3-1 fastball by Brigham (7-4).
Washington (40-16-1) has to come right back this afternoon at 5 p.m. Seattle time for an elimination game against Georgia Tech (37-26). The Huskies blanked the Yellow Jackets Saturday to open this regional behind Tyler Davis’ first shutout in UW postseason history. Then Tech eliminated Jacksonville State 4-2 earlier Sunday.
The winner of UW-Georgia Tech tonight plays Mississippi (43-18) Monday at noon – and will have to beat the host twice Monday to win the region.
Yes, the Huskies will have to win three elimination games over 25 hours to advance to next week’s best-of-three super regionals.
Brigham, coming off a season high-tying seven innings last Sunday while beating UCLA, was gritty in lasting 124 pitches over seven innings in 85-degree heat with 70-percent humidity – and against a wildly roaring crowd of 9,599. Brigham allowed seven hits and two runs. He struck out four, walked three, and helped preserve a Huskies bullpen that may have to appear in three games over 25 hours.
To think: The junior right-hander missed all of the 2013 season following Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in his elbow. Until this spring he hadn’t started in 21 months.
The Huskies doubled their hit total over the first six innings with singles by Trevor Mitsui and, one out later, Brian Wolfe to begin the seventh. Robert Pehl then stroked a single under the glove of Ole Miss shortstop Errol Robinson to score Mitsui. He got to second and Wolfe reached third when the outfielder’s throw was way wide and past home.
Ole Miss then replaced starter Christian Trent, (five hits, one run in 6 1-3 innings while pitching for the first time in 16 days) with Aaron Greenwood. Pinch-hitter Ryan Wiggins struck out. Ninth batter Erik Forgione fought off a couple two-strike pitches with foul balls before hitting a screamer – but directly at Ole Miss second baseman Preston Overbey. The Huskies stranded the two in scoring position and still trailed 2-1.
In the eighth, Berry got his sixth hit in two games here, a bloop single that skipped over the glove of charging and diving center fielder Bousfield. UW third-base coach Donegal Fergus considered sending Austin Rei, who had walked, from first all the way home in an attempt to tie the game. Fergus finally put the stop sign on his catcher, who really didn’t have a great chance to score on the play as the Ole Miss fielder retrieved the ball in short center field.
That was as close as UW got to tying it.
Berry, moved by coach Lindsay Meggs from sixth to fourth in the batting order after three hits Saturday in the 8-0 win over Georgia Tech, had two more in his first two at-bats Sunday. But those were the only two hits the Huskies had in the first six innings against Trent.
Brigham allowed the first two Rebels to reach in the bottom of the fourth. Then Ole Miss’ J.B. Woodman flicked a bad-luck, opposite-field double for RBI. It plopped inside the left-field line, far from Robert Pehl. The Huskies’ left fielder was playing Woodman to left-center.
But with second and third and no outs, Brigham held Ole Miss to just that single run. Will Jamison missed on a suicide-squeeze bunt attempt, and UW catcher Austin Rei ran down Ole Miss’ Will Allen, who had been halfway home from third, for the second out. After Brigham ended the threat he punched his right fist toward the turf and the Huskies’ dugout had life.
But after Berry singled leading off the fifth and Brian Wolfe got hit by a pitch one out later, the Huskies couldn’t answer. Pehl flied out and Chris Baker ripped a liner directly at Ole Miss right fielder Will Jamison to end that chance.
In the bottom of the fifth, Brigham fell behind No. 2 hitter Bousfield in a 3-1 count. Bousfield then launched a fastball on a line just over the wall beyond left-center field to make it 2-0 for Ole Miss.
Check back here to GoHuskies.com for postgame reaction and updates.
Join our live chat at 11:45 a.m. Pacific time Monday of the Huskies’ championship-round game against Ole Miss. UW’s starting pitcher is still to be determined, likely a combination of relievers.
GM 2 -- #2 Washington 4, #3 Georgia Tech 2
WASH 002 002 000 –- 4 8 1
TECH 200 000 000 –- 2 5 0
Jared Fisher, Brandon Choate (5), Trevor Dunlap (6) and Parker Guinn, Austin Rei (6). Matthew Grimes, Ben Parr (7) and Arden Pabst. W – Chote (4-1). L – Grimes (5-3). Sv – Dunlap (6). HR – Andrew Ely (3). 3B – none. 2B – GT, Daniel Spingola (9), Matt Gonzalez (21). LOB: UW 7, GT 8. Time – 3:15. Attendance – 6,471.
GM 1 -- #1 Ole Miss 2, Washington 1
WASH 000 000 100 –- 1 6 0
MISS 000 110 000 –- 2 7 1
Jeff Brigham, Will Ballowe (8) and Austin Rei. Christian Trent, Aaron Greenwood (7) and Will Allen. W – Trent (9-0). L – Brigham (7-4). Sv – Greenwood (4). HR – Austen Bousfield (6). 3B – none. 2B – J.B. Woodman (2). LOB: UW 7, UM 8. Time – 2:53. Attendance – 9,599.