Tennessee rolls Ole Miss to open anticipated series
OXFORD | The traffic, around noon on Friday, backed up down South Lamar, going bumper to bumper past the road to Rowan Oak and close to the roundabouts that mark the Highway 6 intersection.
Local hotel rates for the weekend rose to more than $1,000 a night in some instances when considering the taxes and fees applied to the base rate. Stores filled and restaurants overflowed as No. 1 Ole Miss welcomed in No. 5 Tennessee for the SEC home opener.
Friday and Saturday were both hard sell outs, and the weather mostly cooperated.
Even Lane Kiffin got in on the action, bypassing a baseball for a golf ball when he threw out the first pitch prior to the game. After a string of cold temperatures and lackluster opponents on the non-conference home weekends, the season seemed to finally have the feel of spring baseball and anticipatory energy.
Then the game started.
Tennessee pummeled Ole Miss, 12-1, to open the series, scoring six runs in the second inning to chase starter John Gaddis. Tennessee entered the game with 59 home runs which led the nation and added five more versus the Rebels (16-5, 2-2).
“We just weren’t ready,” Tim Elko said. “We were a little flat-footed from the start. We didn’t come out with that fire under us like they did… We just came out and expected us to roll over them. And we didn’t… They are a really good team, and we have to come out with fire more than we did today.”
Bianco: “When you get your butts kicked it looks like you don’t play with energy or focus. Hard to argue with, but that’s not why we got beat 12-1.”
The Volunteers (21-1, 4-0) only had nine hits, but most of them were loud, with six going for extra bases.
And it was mostly for show, as Chase Burns needed very little insurance. The uber-talented freshman from Gallatin, Tennessee, had a 0.68 ERA in 26 innings before Friday and it went up to 0.80 after seven sterling innings.
Burns took a perfect game into the fifth before Justin Bench hit a sharp single to center. Tim Elko hit a solo home run in the seventh for Burns only blemish. He hit 96 MPH in the sixth and hovered around triple digits early in the game.
“A fastball that we couldn’t catch up to and enough cutters to keep us off-balance,” Bianco said. “He dominated us. We usually don’t get dominated like that.”
Ole Miss struck out 11 time against him without walking, and he threw 72 of 106 pitches for strikes.
Meanwhile, with Burns on the other side, it made Ole Miss’ starting pitching questions marks seem even larger.
Gaddis struck out the side insight the first but lost fastball command in the second inning. He opened the inning with back-to-back walks on 10 pitches and then a single, a walk, a home run and a triple came in the next five at-bats to end his day.
“It’s a head-scratcher after looking so good in the first,” Bianco said. “He really struggled to throw the ball in the strike zone which isn’t him. They have a great offense and you can’t open the door for them.”
Six of the 10 batters he faced reached base, as he threw 26 strikes out of 47 pitches.
Gaddis was known for command and not giving hitters charity from this time at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, but the one-year transfer has struggled with that in recent weeks. After walking only two in the first 14 innings of the season, he’s walked eight in his last 10 innings — though one of those is an intentional walk.
With Gaddis struggling to show command in the zone consistently and Ole Miss flipping Derek Diamond and Jack Dougherty in the weekend rotation, things remain unsettled with the starting pitching.
Dougherty will start on Saturday at 7 p.m. for game two of the series. Ole Miss has played four SEC games to this point, all blowouts. The Rebels beat Auburn lost to Auburn, 19-5, a week ago for the most runs allowed in a regular season SEC game since 2009 but followed it up with a rout of the Tigers a day later to take the series.
To do the same here, Ole Miss has to solve its mound issues and maybe in a big way against the relentless Tennessee lineup that ignored or fed off its first true road environment of the season. Friday was just one game but also felt like a magnifying glass of its biggest issue.
The return of Friday Night Fireworks made the night last even longer.
Tennessee was 4-for-6 with runners on base and 4-for-5 with runners in scoring position, while Ole Miss was 1-for-7 and 0-for-4, respectively, in those two categories.
Dylan DeLucia was a relative bright spot for Ole Miss to save some bullpen, giving up five runs on four hits in 6.2 innings. He threw 96 pitches to mop up most of the blowout.
TJ McCants returned to the Ole Miss lineup after tweaking a hamstring Saturday against Auburn but was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. Calvin Harris returned from a midsection straight, playing for the first time in three weeks and walked in his one plate appearance.
“We took them lightly; it won’t happen again,” DeLucia said. "We're going to win tomorrow, I'll tell you that. It's one of those things where they play in a small field. We have a bigger field so we thought we could throw it in to them. It didn't work out."