Column By: Jeff Roberson
They won’t be remembered, at least for a while until the hurt subsides for their fans, for one of the best regular seasons and SEC Tournament runs. And that’s a shame, because Ole Miss baseball in 2016 was good all year.
The final record is 43-19, by anyone’s standards an amazing mark in baseball. They went 18-12 in the regular SEC season, and normally that’s better than a tie for sixth in the league. And they won their first three games at the SEC tourney, moving to the semifinals on Saturday in Hoover.
But it is the two-games-and-done Oxford Regional that folks will recall, at least until the hurt subsides for those who cheer for them. And some anger, too, and that’s also a shame.
The postgame press conference underneath the first base stands where the pitching staff regularly works out, with Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco and players Colby Bortles and Kyle Watson on stage, was emotional.
“It’s obviously hard to talk after that,” Bianco said. “I just told the kids that’s why it’s the greatest game on earth. It’s a game that you’ll have the thrill of victory, and then it will just rip your heart out.”
Make that 10,000 ripped out Rebel hearts in attendance and countless thousands more listening by radio and watching on computer.
That’s what happened when Tulane’s catcher, Jake Rogers, launched a two-run homer off reliable Rebel reliever Will Stokes out into the left field terrace in the top of the ninth inning Saturday to give Tulane a 6-5 lead. And Ole Miss didn’t respond offensively with any runs in the bottom of the ninth off Green Wave reliever Corey Merrill.
And that was that.
The Rebels had lost Friday night to Utah 6-5 when relievers Brady Feigl and Wyatt Short, with Stokes sandwiched in between them, didn’t do enough to keep the Rebels on top with a 5-2 lead in the sixth inning.
The bullpen, arguably Ole Miss’ best weapon from mid-February until that semi-final game against Texas A&M in Hoover, was not able to do what it had done the entire regular season. And that was take the Rebels home to victory when leading.
Said Bianco, “That will be the thing we look back at and say ‘What could I have done? Was there something different?’ Did we tax the bullpen too much? Did we lean on it too much to where at the end....but the stuff was there. Look at Stokes today, even after 30 pitches yesterday, he’s still in the low 90s with a hard slider. The stuff was there.”
Whatever the assessments and evaluations might be, “I just feel awful for my guys,” Bianco said.
Feelings get better with time. So will what the fans think of this year’s team. I’d guess most are proud, but patting them on the back for what they accomplished might have to wait for a few days for many.
That being said, this time of year when the season is over always means a few won’t return. Either they are seniors, or they will be drafted as underclassmen and leave.
Like Bortles, a junior. He’s draft-eligible, and Errol Robinson, a junior. So is Tate Blackman, only a sophomore but 21 years old so he's draftable, and Henri Lartigue, a junior.
And J.B. Woodman, a junior. What a couple of months he had, good enough to be called Superman by his team and coach for his defense and his offense.
Seniors done are Holt Perdzock, who will always be remembered for the Lafayette Super Regional, and Cameron Dishon, forever linked with one of Ole Miss’ five College World Series teams.
And senior Matt Denny, from a Rebel family and, along with Bortles and Superman Woodman, a team captain this season. Chad Smith and Sean Johnson, both juniors, could be drafted. Connor Cloyd was a senior, too, and gone.
And Wyatt Short, a junior and one of the most important pieces of the Rebel puzzle the past three seasons could be done here.
And Brady Bramlett, a junior and one of the program’s stars on and off the field, could be gone as well.
There are a lot of good players already here in addition to the above, and a good signing class coming in for the fall. But that’s a whole bunch of pitchers and position players who won’t return. And that is one reason why this team expected to go further than two and out at home.
The team had goals. One was 40 wins. Another was hosting a NCAA Regional. Another was a second trip to the College World Series in three years.
“Our goal is to go to Omaha,” said Bortles, his voice trailing off to near inaudible as it cracked, but just loud enough to hear one last comment. “It sucks.”
Collective Rebel Nation certainly agrees with its third baseman. And when the hurt and even some anger subsides, they’ll all remember how special this season was and that it ended way, way too soon.