Morris etches name in Arkansas lore with clutch save
OMAHA, Neb. — With the season on the line, Zack Morris recorded the three biggest outs of the year against the same team that chased him in the first inning just two days earlier.
Arkansas was clinging to a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth when it called upon the left-hander to get out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam. He did just that, limiting the damage to one run and closing out a 3-2 victory Ole Miss in a must-win game at Charles Schwab Field.
The result forced a winner-take-all game between the SEC West rivals for the last spot in the College World Series finals against Oklahoma.
“Just a great win for our team, obviously,” head coach Dave Van Horn said. “Back against the wall and a lot of drama there at the end.”
That may have been an understatement by the veteran coach, as Arkansas and Ole Miss played the first game — out of 12 — in Omaha this year that was decided by fewer than four runs.
It was a 3-1 game entering the bottom of the ninth and Evan Taylor was on the mound. The left-hander had retired nine of the 10 batters he faced in three scoreless innings, matching his career high, but gave up a leadoff single to Kemp Alderman on his first pitch of the inning.
At that point, with the tying run coming to the plate, Van Horn decided to turn to Brady Tygart, his freshman closer. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the right-hander plunked the next two batters to load the bases — putting the winning run on base.
The left-hander had talked to his coach following Tuesday’s win over Auburn and told him he wanted the ball again, so Van Horn told him to be ready. That moment came in the bottom of the ninth.
The same pitcher who took the loss against the Rebels that sent Arkansas into the loser’s bracket Monday, when he gave up a pair of earned runs and loaded the bases in just 2/3 of an inning, needed to prevent more than one run from scoring.
When he got the mound after jogging in from the bullpen, Van Horn said the conversation was short and sweet.
Hey man, can you do this?
Okay, here you go. Go get it.
“He had a little different look to him tonight than he looked like last night, so I was proud of him,” Van Horn said. “Sometimes you don't know until you experience it, and you have to get knocked down a little bit to have success, and I think he really genuinely wanted the ball tonight.”
For Morris, the thought process was simple: Just make pitches — if not for him, for his teammates.
“I don’t want to be the reason these seniors or these grad guys won’t put this jersey on again, so that was kind of my motivation to get through that inning,” Morris said. “I’m kind of close to some of these older guys on the staff and especially with Mike behind the plate, him being a grad guy, I did not want this game to be the last time they put this Razorback jersey on.”
The first Ole Miss player he faced was a pinch hitter. Morris actually fell behind 2-0 to Hayden Leatherwood, but bounced back with three straight strikes for the first out of the inning.
Next up was TJ McCants, who entered the game as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning. On a 1-2 pitch, the Rebels’ right fielder hit a high fly ball into shallow left and disaster nearly struck.
Jace Bohrofen — a defensive replacement for the Razorbacks — came running in and shortstop Jalen Battles ran out. The two managed to avoid a significant collision and Bohrofen held on to the ball for the second out.
The only blemish on Morris’ stat line came when Ole Miss leadoff man Justin Bench hit a first-pitch ground ball to the left side of the infield. It looked like it might have a chance to get through, but Battles got to it and ensured it’d just be an RBI infield single.
“How about the play that Jalen Battles made?” Van Horn said. “Nobody's really mentioned that. What an unbelievable play. Hat's off to Coach (Nate) Thompson having the left field flared up with two strikes… There's a lot that goes into it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
It all came down to Jacob Gonzalez, the projected first-round pick. He got it to 2-2, but lined out to Bohrofen in left for the final out, stranding the tying and game-winning runs in scoring position.
“That’s like something you dream of as a kid — bases loaded, no outs, you’re up by two,” Morris said. “I was extremely calm out there, honestly. When that last out was caught, everything a kid could want, have ever dreamed off, all the emotions flared out of my body. It was awesome.”
Arkansas and Ole Miss will meet again for the sixth, and final, time this season at 3 p.m. CT Thursday on ESPN2.