Here are five things to watch for tonight:
1. A rematch against USM righty Taylor Braley- Ole Miss struggled the first two times through the lineup against Braley, who is 3-0 with a 4.29 ERA. He's got a pretty good fastball that touches 94 mph and will mix it with a change up and a slider. He had the Rebels off balance early on, but after Ole Miss cracked him for a run in the fifth, they chased him in the sixth which ended up being the turning point in the ballgame. The discrepancy between the swings in the first four innings versus the last two was easily visible and was largely a result of Ole Miss getting more hitters counts, which stemmed from better swings and not chasing off speed pitches that dipped out of the zone. Braley is an athletic kid for the Golden Eagles. He also hits in the four-hole and has swatted eight home runs and driven in 29 runs this year. The Rebels faired much better against what has been a really strong Southern Miss bullpen. The entire USM pitching staff leads the Conference USA in ERA with a 3.48 mark.
2. Greer Holston's early struggles- Last week Holston didn't have good grip on his command in the early innings. Three walks and an HBP helped spot Southern Miss a 3-0 lead. Bianco elected to give Holston a quick hook and turned it over to his bullpen who surrendered just one more run in the final 7.1 innings of that 12 inning marathon. But with what theRebels have ahead of them in a weekend that begins on Thursday, Mike Bianco would ideally like to get a little more out of the freshman righty and preserve his bullpen a bit. Southern Miss averages 10.9 hits per game and is one of the most potent offenses in college baseball, and Holston was a hit away from Southern Miss taking full control of the game on multiple occasions. Give him credit for hanging in there, but a smoother start would be obviously be ideal this time around.
3. Ole Miss' RPI- This is really something to keep an eye on this entire week because it is chock-full of RPI boosting opportunities, beginning tonight. The Rebels' RPI currently sits at 51. It has gotten absolutely no help from its sweeps of East Carolina and UNC-Wilmington. East Carolina has lost seven in a row and has sputtered to an 18-15 (5-7) mark while UNC-Wilmington's RPI currently sits at 176. Both clubs were ranked at the time Ole Miss played them, and it seemed like both of those sweeps would have some pretty sharp teeth. But that hasn't turned out to be the case, and quite frankly the Rebels did well not to drop a game to either because it would have likely led to their RPI tumbling into the 60's.
Perhaps the most interesting part about this is the fact that the SEC doesn't currently have a team in the RPI top 12. Some of this is due to cannibalization of the league, and some of it is product of teams like Florida and Vanderbilt struggling a bit at various points this season. Is Ole Miss running low on RPI boosting chances? Of course not, and obviously the RPI will fluctuate as the season churns on. But it is noteworthy that according to the current RPI rundown, two of its best three opportunities left are this week with LSU (21) and Southern Miss (25). Florida currently sits at 14. Texas A&M, Arkansas and Auburn still sit waiting on the Rebels' schedule and are all resting in the top 35 currently. But with the schedule Ole Miss has in front of it, and particularly the road games, you don't want to be sitting around 14-15 SEC wins with an RPI floating in the 50's heading into Hoover. It's early April, but it's worth pointing out the importance of these games this week in terms of the big picture.
4. How deep will Bianco go into his bullpen tonight? - I hit on this a second ago, and it is well-noted that Ole Miss has one of the best pitching staffs in the country. The group leads the SEC in WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, hits per nine innings and walks per nine innings. It is in the top 12 nationally in all of those categories, and will need every bit of its bullpen this weekend if it wishes to win a series in Baton Rouge for the first time in over 30 years. A lengthy outing from Holston, coupled with some cushion by way of run support would be nice to have going into that series this weekend.
5. Will the offense travel? - The team has scored at least five runs in each of its last four games (all wins) after hitting a pretty nasty offensive slump in March. Will that carry over to this four-game road trip? Nick Fortes has provided a boost since being inserted into the lineup more often and guys like Tate Blackman, Ryan Olenek and Will Golsan are beginning to swing it well. Taylor Braley is certainly a better than average midweek pitcher, but also may be the least-terrorizing arm Ole Miss faces this week. It will be interesting to watch this team's approach at the plate tonight as it dives into a week of some pretty stellar opposing pitching.