Patience is a virtue.
For Ole Miss baseball, at least for a day, patience was the solution to its season-long offensive woes.
Ole Miss moved to 16-9 with a 5-4 win over Little Rock Tuesday afternoon. The Rebels used two runs in the bottom of the 8th and a game-winning single by Michael Fitzimmons in the 10th to secure the victory and set up a three-game set with in-state rival Mississippi State this weekend.
“Obviously it wasn’t the prettiest game for us,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “(Greer) Holston, I thought, was terrific. They put an inning together. Once again we have trouble getting off the field. Proud of guys for the way they hung in there. They let us back into the game with some walks, but that’s something we don’t do well. Today we took the walks.”
The Rebels couldn’t muster much against Little Rock starter Ryan LeMoine Tuesday afternoon. The same Ryan LeMoine who entered play with an ERA north of 13.00, a WHIP near 3.00 and an average against of .420. The same Ryan LeMoine who was making his first start of the season. Granted, LeMoine boasts a team-high 15 relief appearances, but still.
Ole Miss, though, made LeMoine into an ace in his two innings pitched on the day. And even when the Rebels threatened with runners on second and third with one out in the fourth inning against Little Rock relievers Corbin Osborn and Preston Oberling, Thomas Dillard and Cole Zabowski registered outs that were more infield flies than hard-hit fly-outs.
The Rebels, who entered play with a .321 combined team OBP, have struggled with overall hitting approach all season. Pitch recognition has been an ever-changing, ongoing problem. Ole Miss had trouble identifying change-ups in Houston, when they went 0-for the weekend. The coaching staff went to work to make the fix. Only the Rebels began looking for them too much, which meant, and still means, at times, they missed/are missing hittable fastballs more often than not.
It’s the equivalent of plugging one leak in the dam, only for another to burst open. And it doesn’t help matters that the players, undoubtedly, have had numerous voices in their ear. Everyone is a hitting coach these days.
“The thing I was proud of early, even when we didn’t have double-digit hit games, we still scored runs. We’ve really scuffled to score runs,” the Rebels’ actual hitting coach, Mike Clement, said.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys with some power and some pop. You saw that earlier in the season. We’ve tried to simplify things — stay in the middle of the field, and drive the ball the other way. If you can wait and drive the ball the other way, you’re going to handle off-speed pitches.”
Tuesday afternoon, however, the Rebels scattered nine hits. Their pitching, which has been strong all year, was good again … for six innings. They held Little Rock to no runs and four hits, led by a strong showing for Greer Holston, who lowered his ERA from 2.95 to 2.28 with 5.1 innings of three-hit ball with three strikeouts to two walks. Then the seventh inning happened.
Little Rock scored four runs, all with two outs, against Ole Miss reliever Sean Johnson. The Trojans finished with four runs on seven hits.
Ole Miss, though, was able to mount a comeback in the bottom of the 8th. In baseball, nothing is more important than getting on base, and it doesn’t matter all that much how a hitter gets there. Chase Cockrell led off the eighth inning with a single. Will Golson walked. A sacrifice bunt moved the runners over, followed by three-consecutive walks that resulted in two Rebel runs.
Any way possible. Ole Miss will take offense however it can get it.
“I was just looking for fastballs,” Fitzsimmons said. “He threw me three of them. I tried to stay short and not do too much. I was lucky enough to get a hit. Put a good swing on it.”
Ole Miss has the depth of pitching to keep it in games all year. The Rebels rank Top 5 nationally in four different pitching categories: fewest hits allowed per nine innings, shutouts, strikeout-to-walk ration and WHIP. Each of their three weekend rotation members — James McArthur, David Parkinson and Ryan Rolison — have sub-2.00 ERAs, including a team-leading 1.77 ERA for McArthur.
But they can’t do it alone. As Ole Miss attempts to, somehow, cure its mental block at the plate, seeing as many pitches as possible, as well as exhibiting an ability to wait and not get out in front, is an approach worth getting behind.
Tuesday afternoon was proof positive.
Just when a two-run deficit for an Ole Miss team that had, up to that point, scraped together all of two runs — single runs in the fifth and seventh — appeared too much to overcome, the Rebels didn’t press. They hung in and allowed Little Rock and its taxed pitching staff (the Trojans threw 10 pitchers in the game) to wear out. They stayed patient.
Make no mistake, Ole Miss is still in its offensive rut. The Rebels are Vinny and Mona Lisa Vito’s Cadillac spinning its tires in the Alabama mud.
But Tuesday afternoon was a step. Well, a walk.
Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco
On the offense continuing to struggle: “I think part of it is just a couple of at-bats at the right time. We left some runners on base. Just one more hit, or even a ground ball to get a runner in, we had opportunities to score and extend the lead. Doing that opens up things. I think it takes the pressure off the pitching and defense a little bit. The pitching and defense have pitched with a lot of pressure on them and they’ve handled it well. Today was one of those days that it looked like they were going to break a little bit. We’re a few more at-bats away from making it look easier.” On Mississippi State: “We’re very conscious to make sure the freshmen and the newcomers and the kids that aren’t from Mississippi realize the rivalry and how important it is. Not just to our school and program, but to all our fans and alumni base. Once you get here and you become part of the Ole Miss family, it’s quickly told. You figure that out in football and in basketball. They’re quite aware, but they’ll be reminded as well.”
OXFORD, Miss. – (Ole Miss SID) In the bottom of the 10th, a pinch-hit single by redshirt-sophomore Michael Fitzsimmons lifted the No. 19 Ole Miss baseball team over Little Rock Tuesday afternoon at Swayze Field. The Rebels (16-9) won the extra-inning battle with the Trojans (9-16) in front of over 6,000 elementary school students in attendance for the fifth annual School Day Game.
Houston Roth (1-0) struck out the side in the 10th, and the perfect inning earned the freshman the first victory of his career. Fellow freshman and Ole Miss starting pitcher Greer Holston did not allow a run over 5.1 innings, giving up just three hits and two walks. Will Stokes and Dallas Woolfolk also pitched out of the bullpen, combining to keep Little Rock off the scoreboard for 2.1 innings.
Colby Bortles and Cole Zabowski tallied two hits apiece as Ole Miss finished with nine for the game. Fitzsimmons and Chase Cockrell provided singles off the bench, two of seven Rebels to record a hit throughout the extra-inning affair.
The Trojans scored all four of their runs in the seventh inning due to a two-RBI single by Cale Ridling and a two-run homer by Zach Baker. Little Rock used 10 pitchers in the 10-inning contest, and McKinley Moore (0-1) suffered the loss.
Holston tossed a pair of scoreless frames before the Rebels put up the game’s first run in the bottom of the second. Tim Rowe singled up the middle for the first hit of the matchup, and he continued to advance 90 feet one play at a time. A wild pitch allowed the designated hitter to move into scoring position, while a groundball to the right side brought him to third. With two outs, Zabowski found a hole for a base hit to plate Rowe and give Ole Miss the early lead.
The Rebels used small ball in the fifth to double their advantage. An infield single to third by Nick Fortes kicked off the inning. Kyle Watson’s sacrifice bunt was enough to put Fortes into scoring position before another groundout to second moved the Rebel 90 feet from home. With a good piece of two-out hitting, Tate Blackman singled up the middle to score his teammate and make it a 2-0 game.
Little Rock flipped the script in the seventh, turning a two-run deficit into a two-run lead. Following a double and a walk, Sean Johnson entered the game to relieve Connor Green. A wild pitch allowed both Trojans to move closer home, and the pinch hitter, Ridling, brought them across with a single into left field to square the contest at two runs apiece. The tie didn’t last long as Baker sent a two-run home run into the Ole Miss bullpen. The four-run frame put Little Rock in front, 4-2.
In the bottom of the eighth, Ole Miss was patient at the plate to score two runs and tie the game. Cockrell delivered a pinch-hit single, and after Will Golsan walked, Grae Kessinger placed a perfect sacrifice bunt to move the tying run into scoring position. Three straight walks followed, including two with the bases loaded, bringing the game to a 4-4 standstill.
For the second consecutive inning, the Rebels put two runners in scoring position. However, with the winning run at third and one out in the bottom of the ninth, Little Rock got out of the jam to force extra innings.
Roth pitched a perfect 10th, striking out the side to hand the game over to the Ole Miss offense. Watson drew a one-out walk and raced for second on a hit-and-run to eliminate the chance of a double play. The Trojans proceeded to walk Blackman to set up multiple force outs and deal with Fitzsimmons. The redshirt sophomore made them pay, ripping a ball into left field to easily score Watson. With the Ole Miss speedster crossing the plate, the Rebels sprinted out of the dugout and onto the field to celebrate the walk-off win with the hero Fitzsimmons.
Up next, the Rebels kick off another SEC weekend early with a nationally televised matchup with Mississippi State Thursday night (March 30). The rivalry begins at 7 p.m. CT on ESPNU before jumping over to SEC Network for game two of the series (6 p.m., March 31). Concluding the series, the Rebels and Bulldogs will meet for a Saturday afternoon contest starting at 1:30 p.m. (April 1).