By: Jeff Roberson
But, as they say, it’s still early. Three weekends are in the books and a couple of midweek games. So far so good, they might also say.
When a team’s won 10 of 11 games, a lot’s gone right. Although this weekend didn’t prove to be the case, one of those important aspects is handling the close games, those three runs or less final margins. Ole Miss is 5-0 in those close games so far.
The past three days, however, the victory margin was wider. No close games in Carolina. The scores: Ole Miss won 7-3 over Ball State, 8-2 over the homestanding and ranked Coastal Carolina team 8-2, and finally 7-1 against outmanned Cincinnati. It was a good weekend for this Rebel team.
With five games at home this week – two against Southeast Missouri and three against Grambling – they should win them all. But it’s baseball, so we’ll see.
What’s been the reason for the 10-1 start and mostly – with the exception being a 4-0 Saturday loss to Louisville – stellar play?
“It all starts on the mound,” Mike Bianco always says and did so again in the postgame Sunday after the Rebels’ win against the Bearcats. On that particular day, Sean Johnson had once again pitched well, starting and going six innings with no runs, one hit, one walk and three strikeouts. Then there was Matt Denny, Andrew Lowe and Connor Green, who collectively allowed one run.
Someone mentioned to me that last year’s team, looking back, had trouble on Sundays, and that maybe Sean Johnson was the missing piece. We knew that last year when he was out with injury, and we are seeing him on the mound play out positively this season.
Chad Smith, the Saturday starter, has gotten better each week. Brady Bramlett has been solid as projected on Fridays.
But it’s been the depth of the pitching staff that we’d heard about all school year that may be the most impressive thing so far for this team. Did you believe that this weekend, or any weekend for that matter, Ole Miss would win three games with Wyatt Short and Will Stokes never seeing the mound? That’s what happened.
Defensively the Rebels, with veterans at many positions, have been good most games. There were three errors in the loss to Louisville. Had there been none that day they might still have lost, given they didn’t score at all.
And hitting. We’ve all wondered about that. I get questioned about that most of all, and rightfully so. But you can see that coming around. Henri Lartigue with three hits Friday. Tate Blackman with three hits Saturday. Freshman Ryan Olenek in the DH spot with three hits Sunday. The Rebels with 31 hits on the weekend, and 22 runs.
Sure, the competition was not SEC-caliber. But this team is taking advantage of just about every situation when it lines up to play. They’re getting better.
Tuesday and Wednesday will prove to be challenges. By that I mean “locking in,” which Bianco says is important to do every game. This team has, for the most part, done that. The win in the late innings against Arkansas State, and the comeback after falling behind against Memphis may not have been lack of focus vs. opponent’s focus. But winning both was critical in these early goings.
James McArthur starting both those games on the mound and the team getting wins was important, not only for the team but for McArthur. Bianco has called him a most talented freshman pitcher, and he will be counted on for midweek starts this season. Now with five games this week, who will the starter be for the Wednesday game?
It might be a Brady Feigl or a David Parkinson. Maybe Will Stokes, since he didn’t pitch at all this weekend. Having as many arms as this team apparently does gives them some options on the mound in a five-game week.
I like the demeanor of this team, even with the youth on the pitching staff. The leadership is good on this squad. I like the way they’ve gone about their business so far. I like the options the coaches have at some positions, like having the confidence in freshman Nick Fortes at catcher to relieve Lartigue and allow him some rest time for a long season. And some options at DH, like Olenek, D.J. Miller, Holt Perdzock, and others as they move forward.
There seems to be a lot of confidence around this program with this team. I have sensed that for a while. There will be losses and some of them we all know they shouldn’t have. That’s baseball.
But if they play like they have through 11 games and the good health gods shine positively on them, they can make a run at something special. Time will tell if they do, and ultimately what that is.