Here are five things to look forward to tonight in the series opener as the Rebels attempt to combat one of the SEC's best pitchers.
1. How will this lineup handle Alex Lange? - Lange owns arguably the best curveball in the college game. It is a 12-6 curve by its truest definition and is lethal wipeout pitch. He's also got a fastball that can touch 95 mph and his change up is quickly coming along as a really good third pitch. There really isn't a way to sugar coat it, the junior righty is one of the most dominant pitchers in the country, misses barrels and can make any hitter look foolish. He's compiled 62 strikeouts in 45.1 innings en route to a 3.77 ERA. He hasn't been the benefactor of much run support this season, and his 3-4 record is a reflection of that.
Lange is hittable, though. He's yielded 19 earned runs and been popped for 46 hits, which is the most out of LSU's three-headed rotation. But it's going to take discipline and a sound approach at the plate from the Rebels, who struck out 16 times in Hattiesburg on Tuesday night. It'll be a tough test to say the least to open this series.
2. Getting tough outs- The Tigers have tough outs sprinkled all across their lineup. LSU is second in the SEC with a .299 team batting average and has struck out 202 teams which is good for the fewest number of whiffs in the league. Six hitters in the LSU lineup hit over .300 and three of them hit over .340 for the season. The Tigers don't give an inch at the plate and will make James McArthur work for every out. Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman are the first two tasks in a tough trip through the top of the Tigers lineup with Greg Deichmann's 10 home runs and 37 RBIs waiting in the heart of the order. The Tigers are third in the league in runs scored, but rank towards the middle of the pack in walks. At the risk of stating the obvious, McArthur's chances of going deep into the game will improve greatly if his command is sharp and he doesn't hand out free passes to this lineup.
3. The Bullpen- Thanks to six shutout innings from Greer Holston on Tuesday, Ole Miss will enter this series with a rested bullpen. McArthur has been better each time he has gone out, and gone deep into the game too. If the Rebels are to have a chance to take this opener, one would think it would be in a low-scoring pitcher's duel much like the script that most Friday night games in this league follow. Bianco will have all of his guns available in the pen which can give Ole Miss the upper hand should it be a close game late.
4. Is the offense here to stay? - In this five-game winning streak that Ole Miss is currently riding, it has scored at least five runs in each game. It faced some less than stellar Alabama pitching last weekend, and Lange will snap the Rebels back to reality in the sense that he will be a more traditional power arm that is the norm on Friday nights in the SEC. Tim Rowe, Nick Fortes and Colby Bortles are all batting over .300 in SEC play, and Will Golsan and Ryan Olenek are knocking on the door with a .298 mark in that department. Quality at bats are something this team charts closely, and those have been more plentiful during this stretch of games. It would be naive not to expect the hitting to cool down a little simply because of who the Rebels are facing on the mound. But keep a close eye on each at bat and the type of swings Ole Miss gets off tonight, because that will be pretty telling as to how far this group has come at the plate.
5. How will Ole Miss handle the stage? - Sure, it is just an early SEC series in mid-April, and this team's season won't be defined by what happens this weekend. But it just feels like this is an important moment for this youthful group in terms of its growth. It has garnered some momentum after a rough month of March, and is finding its footing a bit. Alex Box Stadium is as hostile an environment as you'll find in college baseball, and LSU is again one of the better teams in the SEC. Ole Miss hasn't won a series in Baton Rouge since 1982. A 2-2 week on the road would be nothing to scoff at, but if the Rebels can find a way to steal a series - or really just play three competitive, close ballgames - it would do wonders for their confidence and make its position in the standings glean a bit more.
"Their down years are most people's best years," Bianco said of the environment. "Even with that said, and that's the obvious, the crowds. They've led the country in attendance the last 30 years, 25 years something like that. Beyond that, they're educated baseball people that really know when to cheer and when to take over a game. I think opponents feel that. That is why people love to go there. It is a neat atmosphere."
First pitch tonight is slate for 6:30 p.m.