Brandon Johnson arrived just on time and TJ McCants continues to deliver, as Ole Miss takes UGA playoffs

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Junior college players of any sport are not allowed to sit, and Ole Miss Brandon Johnson’s right-hander reliever is no exception.

The point is, with the exception of a few appearances here and there, mostly midweek, for the first two plus months of the season, that’s exactly what Johnson was doing. He pitched 2.0 combined innings throughout April.

His explosive fastball, which regularly hits the mid-90s, wasn’t enough if he couldn’t locate, and his cursor, his only reliable off-speed offering, wasn’t generating enough swing-and-miss. The talent was there, of course, as Ole Miss signed Johnson out of Columbia State Community College, despite being a two-time National Pitcher of the Week winner. He was 5-0 with 51 strikeouts and just eight steps in 29 innings during the 2020 season cut short by the pandemic.

But head coach Mike Bianco has tried just about everything in his search for an intermediate bridge to the SEC saving leader Taylor Broadway. Ole Miss entered the year with 22 pitchers on her roster, including a handful of veteran reindeer shooter arms. However, on the final weekend of the regular season, the Rebels find themselves with limited options.

Max Cioffi played two games before his season was finally cut short by Tommy John’s surgery. Few hurlers in school history have recorded more relief heats than Austin Miller. He holds the schedule of appearances (32), set when he was a junior in 2019, but he hasn’t been himself, especially in each of his last two outings.

Miller allowed a grand slam in the series final with Vanderbilt and a three-run homerun in a nasty midweek loss to the humble UT Martin two days later. Braden Forsyth was closest to the squad a year ago and worked at a 1.23 ERA. But the junior right-hander, doomed by diminished speed and feel, was hammered in in the fall and preseason. He has an ERA of 8.18. Trying as best he could, Greer Holston has never been able to recover his 2018 form. He hasn’t pitched since March. In fact, he’s played in eight games in total over the past three years.

There was no guarantee Johnson would get his turn. Bianco, however, was impressed when Johnson didn’t give up one hit, run or walk while winning two in his lone round against Arkansas-Little Rock. He hit the area and missed bats with a fastball with a side-arm stroke and a slider that suddenly swept past opposing hitters.

“It was super dominant,” Bianco said. “What I saw was really good fastball control (and) a slider in the strike zone. The fastball has so much life, and you can tell he really believes in himself and throws with a lot of confidence. This shows.”

So, Bianco gave him a shot in the only loss of the three-game series with No.2 Vanderbilt. Granted, the Commodores contacted him for a run on two hits and a walk, but even then Johnson didn’t flinch and the stuff was just as good. He rebounded with a run on a hit in an inning against UT Martin two days later.

Bianco was keen to mention Johnson in his post-game remarks afterwards, speaking mainly about the unpredictability of the season and how significant contributors always seem to rise from unlikely places. Johnson, he said, seemed to emerge.

Johnson proved him right in Game 2 in Georgia on Friday.

The Rebels needed 11 innings to earn an 8-5 series win, their third in the SEC in their last four games, and Johnson, at least on the pitching side, was primarily responsible. One of three pitchers used behind starter Derek Diamond (5.1 innings, six hits, four runs, four strikeouts and two marches), he earned his first career victory by completing 2.2 innings and giving up two hits but no runs with three strikeouts and a walk. He threw 28 strikes on his 43 shots.

“Tonight it was an erasure cursor,” Bianco said. “Before the other games he could use it as a secondary ground, but tonight he used it to hit some people. The biggest difference is that he’s been in the area and attacked. Three outings in a row now, just great. You cannot present better than what he launched.

Ole Miss (38-16, 18-11 SEC) was on her last five strikeouts when she recovered from a 5-1 deficit with an eighth inning of four runs, highlighted by back-to-back homers from Kevin Graham and Tim Elko. Graham extended his baseline streak to 47 straight games with his one-out and three-runner shot against lefty Georgia reliever Jaden Woods. He reached 51 of 53 games.

Meanwhile, Elko, playing through an ACL tear and starting his second straight game at the designated hitter, has reached base three times (one hit and two goals). He made his first start since April 5 in Thursday’s 2-0 win.

“I don’t think there is really a recovery process,” Bianco said of Elko. The two-time captain has the team’s second-most home run (11), behind only Graham (12). “Now there was a lot inside where he had to sort of wiggle his feet. It kind of got locked into him a bit; I’m sure it wasn’t really comfortable.

“But nothing to worry about. We’ll see tomorrow how he feels about it. This is all new to us, but I think he continues to rehab, and I don’t think it’s a day-to-day recovery issue with him. He’s not in much pain.

Johnson came in at the bottom of the eighth after Georgia came in to Jackson Kimbrell with a walk and a bullet hit with an out. Johnson took Randon Jernigan out and caused Ben Anderson to take out. Neither team scored in the next two innings, leaving Johnson to keep the score where it was.

He worked on twos and twos with another punch in the ninth, and Parks Harber, who led the 10th with a single, ended up early with two steals and the final K.

Ole Miss scored three points on three two-out singles by TJ McCants, Jacob Gonzalez and Graham in the top of the 11th. Taylor Broadway recorded his 12th save at the top of the SEC, tying him for second all-time on the season-long stoppage chart. Ole Miss has won each of her last four extra games.

Gonzalez and Graham tied for the team lead with three hits apiece. Graham led all the rebels with four RBIs. Gonzalez had a home run, a walk, two runs scored and two RBIs. McCants, leading for the third straight game, was in charge of the endorsement run with his only hit in five batting. He also walked. He has reached base five times in two games and scored three of Ole Miss’s 10 points.

“Gonzalez had a good game, but McCants had some tough beats,” Bianco said. “I think he hit three or four times before that last one at bat. One of the reasons he’s so good is that he’s able to forget the latter at bat and not take it with him.

Ole Miss and Georgia (29-23, 12-17) close the series Saturday at 1 p.m. on SEC Network +.

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