Cup Comes Home Again

Ernie Labarge Bullpen Club historian Tim Climer, whose father Tommy played the sport at Ole Miss, sums up the Governor's Cup this way.

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"It's the 31st most important regular season game every year."

He's right. Or as much as I can dissect 56 games, 30 of them Southeastern Conference contests, I'd say he's right.

Formerly known as the Mayor's Trophy game when it was actually played in Jackson, the game now resides in Pearl at Trustmark Park, the AA home of the Atlanta Braves. The players love playing where the pros play. The coaches like it, too, if you ask them. The six-hour round trip bus ride, well, not so much.

The game was started in 1980 when Jake Gibbs coached Ole Miss and Ron Polk coached Mississippi State to showcase college baseball to the masses. The capital city spring affair has drawn well basically every year since, normally in the 5,000 to 7,000 range.

Due to its win Tuesday night, Ole Miss now leads the event 17-16. The game is normally close, it's always competitive (I've seen a near brawl or two covering it), and the winning fans can brag a little this week.

Until Friday when the 30-game war that is SEC baseball begins again. For MSU that actually starts again Thursday night as Tennessee invades Starkville for the ESPNU game of the week; Ole Miss had that one last Thursday night at Georgia.

I still laugh a bit recalling Mike Bianco's first time to win this game. He's now 8-4 in the game since he got to Oxford.

It was his second season at UM, and it was the first year Polk was back at MSU to coach after "retiring" four years earlier, becoming head coach at Georgia for two years, then returning to Starkville to coach in the stadium that already wore his name.

Rebels tip their collective caps to the fans after a victory
Bruce Newman

The conversation between the coaches, I was told, went something like this.

"Is there an awards ceremony?" Bianco after the game reportedly asked Polk, who was holding the trophy since MSU had won it under then-head coach Pat McMahon the year before.

"Here. Just take it," Polk said and handed it to Bianco.

Not that it wasn't important. The game, the win, and all that comes with it, that's what's important. Not the actual hardware. The victor got a crystal Governor's Cup Tuesday night. But it was the win and what the Rebels gained in other areas that meant more than the cup itself.

The fans show up, split down the middle at home plate, maroon on one side, red on the other. The media is there, moreso than usual. The press box is always standing room only, which makes it harder to cover a game and even plug in a computer to work.

Ole Miss, which won the series finale at Georgia last weekend, improved to 25-12 this season with the win and now has two in a row. A modest winning streak for sure.

Along with the win in Pearl comes additional confidence heading into the second half of the SEC season, beginning with an important series against Arkansas this Grove Bowl weekend. The crowds should be huge. The magnitude of the series, in the actual heart of league play, a chart topper.

Mississippi State fell to 21-16 and has to quickly regroup to host the Volunteers for their Super Bulldog Weekend. A loss in the Governor's Cup is just one loss, but it was also an opportunity for the Bulldogs to get a little momentum heading into the weekend. Now, coupled with a sweep at the hands of South Carolina last weekend, they limp into the UT encounters on a four-game losing skid.

Mike Mayers has been a positive for the pitching staff this season
Bruce Newman

Ole Miss saw some glimpses into its future, likely immediate, with the win Tuesday night. In past years pitchers like Eric Fowler and Will Kline, Mississippians who understood the rivalry completely, emerged as powerful forces for the Rebels from that point on in a season and in a career. There are other examples, but those are two.

This time around, it was freshman right-hander Hawtin Buchanan, whose 2.2 innings of relief helped to relieve some concern about who might step up after the starters the rest of the way.

"It's neat to see a Mississippi kid run out and have his best game of the year in this game," Bianco said of Buchanan.

A Rebel team needing some emergence from some other arms made it even more neat. And important. And add to that Sam Smith, a freshman, Aaron Greenwood, a sophomore, and Dylan Chavez, a junior. All already important to this year's team. All whose importance the rest of the way can't be undervalued.

Now if the coaching staff can just get a couple more of the younger arms – like Chris Ellis and Tanner Bailey already have at times – to lift their games a bit, this pitching staff could be even tougher to deal with down the home stretch.

And, of course, there are the talented weekend starters. What of Bobby Wahl? He'll pitch more innings than ever, and how will his arm hold up with potentially a couple more months to go this season?

And R.J. Hively, who must be wondering if the team will ever win again on the days he starts. He's been mainly effective, but Ole Miss has no SEC wins through five weekends with the senior on the mound. The Rebels held the lead or were tied three of those five games.

And Mike Mayers, who showed as much guts, toughness, and effectiveness last weekend at Georgia as he has all season. The Rebels need more of that, and Mayers seems to have quite a bit of confidence right now.

Hitting hasn't been a problem for Ole Miss most of the season. Getting runners home when they get on board has been. That's a key to the rest of the season as well.

Defensively after some shaky times here and there, like a five-error top of the first against Auburn on a Saturday, the Rebels have settled in nicely on defense. Since winning the Florida series, Ole Miss has recorded just two errors total in nine games.

It's a team that appears to be poised to make some noise, make a move in the league standings, and push toward the postseason – if, as one astute observer from the media said, they'll continue to just get out of their own way and play.

There are enough pieces of a rebuilding puzzle since the 2009 SEC regular season championship and Super Regional with Virginia in Oxford in place to make some type of run.

As is always the case with half a SEC season to go, the question remains "Will they?"

The 31st most important game of the regular season, according to Climer, has gone their way. We'll see this weekend if the trend continues.

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