Josh McCoy

Five things to Watch: Ole Miss hosts Alabama

Ole Miss begins a three-game set against a struggling Alabama ball club tonight, so here are five things to look out for in the game.

1.  Alabama lefty Dylan Duarte -  Even with a right-handed heavy lineup, Ole Miss has struggled to hit left-handed pitching this season. The Rebels are just 4-5 against lefties compared to 13-7 against a right-handed starter. Duarte is a guy that will throw his breaking ball early in the count and use his fastball as a put away pitch. He's 2-1 with a 2.48 era in seven starts, and has not been the benefactor of a ton of run support in the 36.1 innings he's tossed this season. Duarte will fill up the strike zone. He's allowed just nine free passes on the season, and will make this young Rebel lineup earn everything in the batter's box. The Tide have four lefties on the roster, and so Ole Miss will likely see one or more of them out of the bullpen this weekend as well. 

2. Ryan Olenek getting going at the plate - The sophomore center fielder got off to a sluggish start to begin the year, but has raised his batting average all the way to .282 which is now good for best on the team. As a freshman, Olenek essentially forced Mike Bianco to keep him in the lineup due to how well he hit at the plate. Bianco toyed with Olenek in the leadoff spot early on in the season, but has since slotted him lower in the order which is where he would prefer to have Olenek hit. He had three hits in the game against Southern Miss on Tuesday in the clean up role and could serve as a spark for a scuffling offense if he can keep swinging the bat well. 

3. Who will be behind the plate? - It was known going into the season that highly touted freshman Cooper Johnson would be in the lineup because of his rocket of an arm and his defensive prowess. Bianco knew he wouldn't get a ton of production at of Johnson, but I am not sure if he envisioned this little. Johnson has just seven hits on the season in 46 at bats. If you haven't noticed, Bianco has used Nick Fortes quite a bit more in recent weeks. Fortes provides more at the plate, and for a team that has struggled to manufacture offense, that is certainly something they need. Fortes has ten hits in ten starts (38 at bats) and is hitting .263 compared to .152 from Johnson.

Bianco wasn't ready to say that how he will handle catching duties this weekend.

"Nick is also really good and Nick has been playing a little bit better than Coop," Bianco said.

As you can see he didn't offer much on the subject, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on over the weekend

4. Will the offense get going? - This sounds like a broken record and it's been well-documented that this team is struggling to score runs. Ole Miss did pound out six runs on 11 hits against a Southern Miss starter that was touching 94, and bullpen that's been really strong this season. It was clear in the later innings of the game on Tuesday night that the Rebels were getting more quality at bats in and were getting ahead in the count more often. Even with the game going 12 innings, the team did a pretty solid job of spiking the Golden Eagles' pitch counts and eating into their bullpen. We'll find out this weekend if it was a blip on the radar or a sign of more substantial progress. 

5. Was Tuesday a turning point? - This feels like a good time to remind you that Ole Miss started 3-6 in SEC play a year ago, before sweeping three times on its way to an 18-12 mark in SEC play and a regional in Oxford. Sure, the veteran presence of J.B. Woodman and Henri Lartigue played a big role in that especially from an offensive standpoint. And yes, last year's team didn't have nearly as many young bats and didn't struggle nearly as much to hit the baseball. But sometimes emotional wins like the one Ole Miss pulled out of the fire at Trustmark Park can spark a struggling team. It appears as if they're gaining a bit more confidence at the plate, and pitching is certainly plentiful. A struggling Alabama team provides a nice opportunity for Ole Miss to use this series as a springboard and get back on the right track.

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