Regular Season Windup

BATON ROUGE – You could see it coming a long time ago. The last two weekends of the regular season were going to mean something more than usual.


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This year's schedule for Ole Miss ended with the Rebels facing their two biggest historical rivals. Against the first one, Mississippi State, the Rebels took care of business, winning two of three games. The disappointment for the Ole Miss camp was that it didn't get three wins against a Bulldog team that, like the Rebels, will play NCAA postseason baseball but isn't quite good enough or deep enough to win the Southeastern Conference.

Starting tonight, the Rebels face a team that is good enough and deep enough to win the Southeastern Conference. But LSU won't. Vanderbilt will. LSU has to settle for another SEC Western Division title, which it has claimed already, four games ahead of Arkansas with three left to play.

The Rebels and Bulldogs are locked in a tie for third place in the West with the Rebels holding the tiebreaker because of last weekend's series win. MSU hosts South Carolina this weekend.

In most seasons a 21-5 non-conference record, which the Rebels had this season, would be something to brag about or at the very least be pleased with. Anytime a team wins 20 or more games in the non-conference portion of the regular season, it's been a success. But when those five losses are in the five non-conference games fans most closely watch, are interested in, and in a lot of cases actually attend in person, then all that becomes a distraction if you lose them.

Ole Miss lost against MSU in Pearl in April, both times against Memphis, and both times against USM, the latter coming Tuesday night as the Rebels made their way here for this three-game series. It wasn't close, a 10-3 USM win. The Golden Eagles dominated, and Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco expressed his disappointment and displeasure at the game and its outcome.

"There's not much that can be said after a performance like that," Bianco said after the loss in Hattiesburg. "We had a few opportunities early, but we didn't capitalize on them. When that happens, you have to come back out and grind it out and hold the other team down. We didn't do that tonight in any phase of the game."

It's happened each time the Rebels have played a non-conference game against one of the local "rivals." It could be the result of several scenarios: the "rivals" get up for Ole Miss; Ole Miss, with many players from distances beyond Memphis, Hattiesburg, and even Mississippi, doesn't have the same focus and intensity for those games as the other "rivals" do; a lack of depth to be able to play at a winning level in the midweek, for what actually turns out to be four or five games in a week's span, often showing up the most this season on the mound.

It was a strange non-conference year for the Rebels. A successful one record-wise certainly, but when it came to playing the locals, it was a loss every time.


Sam Smith
Bruce Newman

Now it's on to the remaining three games of the regular season that have been waiting on the Rebels for months, since the schedule was released. And it's in a locale where Ole Miss hasn't won a series since 1982.

Baseball, more than most sports, has a way of evening out over time – either a game or a series or a period of weeks, some block of time. It's been 31 years in this series in this location. The Rebels are indeed due.

It won't be easy. Certainly not impossible but not easy. LSU, at 21-6 in the SEC and unable to catch 24-2 Vanderbilt, already has wrapped up all it can this regular season. So there's that.

It's highly doubtful LSU is looking past the Rebels, but they are thinking ahead, as any smart program will do. Because of their standing and what they've accomplished already, there are more important matters for the Tigers than three games against the Rebels this weekend.

The Tigers (46-7 overall) will obviously play hard. It's baseball, and there's SEC competition on the field in the form of rival Ole Miss. But LSU head coach Paul Mainieri, knowing his team can't win it all, has decided to rest undefeated ace Aaron Nola against Ole Miss to get ready for the SEC Tournament. Actually, it's more than that. Mainieri is undoubtedly looking to the NCAA Tournament, an even more important stretch, to have his best pitcher rested and ready.

For Ole Miss (35-18, 14-13), the same three starters will go as usual, but last weekend's rain situation changed things. Tonight Mike Mayers will start, with Sam Smith going Friday night and ace Bobby Wahl in the Saturday finale.

The Tigers also have more going on. They'll be recognizing their past accomplishments and the man in charge of many of them. Friday's game will feature the official renaming of the "new" Alex Box Stadium diamond as Skip Bertman Field, as well as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 1993 national championship team. On Saturday prior to the series finale, the Tigers' large senior class will be recognized.

LSU has been near the top of the national and conference standings all season. Ole Miss was in the top 10 national rankings for much of the early season. But as the losses came, so did the drop in prestige among the voters.

The question for Ole Miss all season and even preseason was could the Rebel defense and pitching be strong enough to carry Ole Miss while its offense hopefully improve throughout the season?

Recently it's been the Rebels' bullpen that's been plagued by inefficiency in some games that have caused late leads to evaporate.

But in Sunday's finale against Mississippi, with Ole Miss up 6-0, it was a combination of both. Ole Miss had only five hits in the game, and the bullpen couldn't hold off MSU as the Bulldogs came back to win and salvage a game.

Three games in Baton Rouge are up next for Ole Miss. Then it's on to Hoover, Ala., for the SEC Tournament, which begins Tuesday for the bottom eight of the 12 teams that have played their win in. Two of the 14 sit at home.

The top four don't play until Wednesday when double elimination play begins, after a single elimination day of four games on Tuesday. Beyond Vanderbilt and LSU, there is still a lot to be decided this weekend as to who plays when in Hoover and who gets to sit out until Wednesday.


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