Sunday Struggle

It all continues to go back to starting pitching for the Ole Miss baseball team this season.

The first weekend starters were – in order – Christian Trent, Sam Smith, and Brady Bramlett. Smith has been long gone from the weekend rotation. But could he return?

That third starter role and what to do about it has been one of the major questions this season. It’s been as tough to find a starter for that game as any year in the Mike Bianco era, now 15 years in.

Will Stokes didn’t get through the first inning of Sunday’s 13-4 loss to Alabama. The freshman with much promise through the fall and even into a solid relief performance in a 14-inning win at LSU fell to 1-5 with the loss as Alabama led 4-0 after the top of the first.

“He just never got out of the gate,” Bianco said. “He hit the first guy and then runs to two 3-0 counts. Just wasn’t ready to go.”

Once again, although Stokes could be the third-game starter on the road at Missouri next weekend, Bianco said they will evaluate that role.

“And it’s unfortunate,” Bianco said of Stokes’ situation on Sunday. “Obviously he has had his struggles. But he’s also given us some opportunities like in the Arkansas game and the Tennessee game and the Vandy game (the lone Ole Miss win of the three). But we can’t just be 50-50 with opportunities.”

Here’s who pitched in that third game of the first weekend series, which was a 16-2 Ole Miss victory over William & Mary after splitting the first two games against the Tribe. The loss that weekend was a Sam Smith start in game two.

Brady Bramlett, Sean Johnson, Will Stokes, Wyatt Short.

Sean Johnson would have started on the weekends, but he never pitched again after that. He was already feeling the effects of what would turn out to be Tommy John surgery days later.

We’ve talked about how his season-long absence has affected the team ad nauseam. But if he gets you even a couple more wins in game three, the Rebels are sitting a lot better than they are now at 23-22 overall and 10-11 in Southeastern Conference play.

Same with Smith. Although never an extended outing starter, Smith got you quality innings in game three the past couple of years. Now in his senior season and following sports hernia surgery in the fall, he hasn't been nearly as effective.

So where will they turn? Some in fandom have mentioned Scott Weathersby as one potential weekend starter. And that could happen. But you also run the risk of losing that valuable opportunity you have with Weathersby, who has been so effective out of the bullpen. Do you take the chance of rocking that boat, so to speak?

There are other options. Jacob Waguespack could be one. He pitched in relief of Stokes Sunday and went three innings of one-run, four-hit baseball with a couple of walks and three strikeouts. He appears to have improved as the season has moved on. And so has his confidence.

Few others have shown the capability, at least right now, of being that guy to start an SEC weekend game.

All of this unfolds as Bianco wasn’t even sure after Sunday’s loss who will start against Mississippi State in Pearl Tuesday night.

That game is always important, and Pearl is a place – either against MSU or Southern Mississippi – that Ole Miss hasn’t had a ton of success in recent years. But this year, given the Rebels’ record, it is even more important.

If they make the SEC Tournament’s 12-team field, and they likely will, then their record to advance beyond that must be over .500. That, too, has been the talk in recent weeks.

As the clock ticks down on the regular season, here’s that scenario we’ve brought up before. The Rebels need to be 29-27 heading to Hoover, at least, to have any type comfort zone about making the NCAA tourney field.

Because the first day is single elimination, and their record would still be above .500 if they lose it. And if they win it, they would be 30-27 and could not fall under .500 having reached double elimination.

They have 11 regular season games remaining. Three at Missouri, three against Mississippi State at home, and three against Texas A&M at home.

Then there is MSU at Pearl this week and Arkansas State on the road in May.

Can the Rebels go 6-5 in their next 11 to get to 29-27? Certainly they want more wins, and they can post a better record than that.

But what would help the cause a whole lot is for someone to finally step up in game three on the weekends. Smith, Stokes, Waguespack, Weathersby. Someone.

First up, however, it’s MSU in Pearl. The Rebels do take some momentum from winning two of three games against Alabama, as senior catcher Austin Knight explained.

“You keep everything in perspective, and obviously today was disappointing,” said Knight, with a home run in each of the Rebels’ last two games against the Crimson Tide. “But getting two of three and playing as well as we did (Saturday) was a good sign.”

Even after that top of the first when they fell behind on Sunday, Knight still believed.

“We had confidence we were going to come back and win the game,” he said. “It just didn’t work out that way.”

Unfortunately that’s been the case so often this season in game three that it’s one of the reasons they are where they are. And still a few wins short of being secure in what’s ahead for them in May.

Bianco has always said that even through the final regular season weekend there is something for just about every team in the league to play for. Some move up and reach their goals, while others don’t make them. And that will be the case all the way to game No. 30 of league play.

So stay tuned. There’s a lot of important baseball remaining.

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