The Halfway Point

Georgia has been an interesting road trip for Ole Miss during the Mike Bianco era. A lot of times it's been unpredictable.

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Like in 2004 when the Rebels went to Athens with a strong team on the rise, in first place in the Southeastern Conference, and got swept. But Ole Miss hosted its first NCAA Regional later that season.

Or in 2006 when the Rebels were off to a dismal start at 1-5 in the SEC and 13-11 overall. Then swept the Bulldogs in Athens and rolled on to an SEC Tournament title and Super Regional hosting of Miami.

Or even at home three years ago when Georgia came to Oxford ranked No. 1 in the country, Ole Miss took two of three, and went on to again host a Super Regional, this time against Virginia.

Two years ago in Athens, a season that eventually wound up in Virginia's Regional, the Rebels claimed the series against the Bulldogs.

This year a 23-10 Ole Miss team, ranked in the Top 20 and at 6-6 in SEC play, begins play in a three-game series with Georgia in Athens tonight still a bit of a mystery team. By all accounts this team should have a better record than 6-6. Maybe only slightly better at, say, 7-5 or perhaps 8-4. But better still.

"We've been so close," said Bianco, who is 16-13 against Georgia as the Rebels' head coach. "That's one of the messages (to the team). If we want to become great, we've got to do a little more. We've got to finish and close some games out. This is another opportunity."

One game here, one game there, and before you known it they're in the thick of things in the SEC race. The fact is, they are close now as Kentucky leads through four weekends at 9-3. LSU is the best in the West currently at 8-4.

So from time to time Georgia ends up being a sling-shot series for the Rebels, no matter the outcome of the three games against the Bulldogs.

Georgia had a comeback win at Clemson Wednesday night, trailing 7-2 before rallying to win 8-7. The Bulldogs used eight pitchers in the contest. The win improved the Bulldogs' record to 20-13 on the season, and they stand 5-7 in SEC play.

This weekend is fairly critical for both teams. But as the past has shown, there's still time to make some things happen. After this weekend, they're halfway through the league portion of the schedule.

Bianco said it's an opportunity to complete the first 15 games of the SEC season on a positive note.

R.J. Hively
Bruce Newman

"To finish off the first half of conference play, you can cut it up or slice it up however you want. But they're all big," he said of the SEC games and series. "It's a chance to win a road series. We've played three of our first five conference series on the road. If you can win a series here, you've won two of those three (the other being at Alabama), that's pretty good."

The Bulldogs are batting at a .279 clip with 18 home runs and 148 RBI. Third baseman Curt Powell leads the squad with a .330 batting average, while center fielder Hunter Cole is right behind him at .328 with a team-leading six home runs. Shortstop Kyle Farmer leads the team in RBI with 19.

The Georgia pitching staff holds a 3.64 ERA with 233 strikeouts to only 83 walks. Opponents are hitting at a .279 clip against the Bulldogs. Thursday night starter Michael Palazzone, a right-hander, is 0-4 with a 5.68 ERA through seven starts and 38.0 innings of work. He has struck out 31 and walked only eight.

The Rebels are supposed to go back to their usual weekend rotation with Bobby Wahl tonight, R.J. Hively Friday night, and Mike Mayers Saturday afternoon. Last weekend Mayers went on day two and Hively day three.

The Bulldogs are scheduled to start left-handers in games two and three – Alex Wood and Blake Dieterich.

Bianco says the line is fine between winning and losing, and every team always has games it should have and could have won. And games it won that could have been losses.

"That's why our league is so good," he said, reminded that some of his best teams were near .500 at the halfway mark – either 8-7 or even 7-8. "You're in position. You're there. It's not like we're in a hole. If we want to win the league, we've got to play better. We've got to do more. At some point you have to win them. That's what the great teams do."

Tonight's game on ESPNU is one of the chances for college baseball and SEC baseball to be showcased to the country. Bianco said these situations have been good for the college game.

"We've been doing this two years now, and we thought it was a great platform and a big stage for the Southeastern Conference to be the only game in college baseball on Thursday night and on ESPNU, which is in like 72 million homes," he said. "It's a great way to promote not only college baseball but promote the Southeastern Conference. And when you're on, to promote your program."

In tonight's case, that's Ole Miss and Georgia.

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