Here are five things to look for as Ole Miss goes for its first series in in Baton Rouge since 1982.
1. Battling a talented freshman- Ole Miss fill face LSU freshman righty Eric Walker, who is similar to Poche’ in the sense that he isn’t going to blow the ball by you, but will be tough to run from a game. Walker has a fastball that’s anywhere from 88-92, followed by a slider and really good change up that he uses to get people out. For a freshman, he has impressive command of all three pitches and is not hesitant to throw any of them. He’s 4-0 with a 2.45 ERA and has struck out 47 and walked just 12 hitters.
He’s a big reason why LSU has only lost one SEC series this year, and started in the lone win in Gainesville. He’ll pose a unique test for Ole Miss in this finale.
2. Will Ryan Rolison stabilize the rotation? - After Mike Bianco spent a couple of weeks in March tinkering with the back end of his rotation to try to find someone to give his team a chance to win on Sunday, Rolison has been steady the last couple of weeks. He was good against Mississippi State in his first SEC start and good enough against Alabama to hold an early lead the offense spotted him. This will be by far and away the freshman lefty’s toughest test so far, and will be really telling as to whether Bianco has found a concrete rotation going forward.
That isn’t to imply at all that Rolison will get moved out of the third slot if he performs poorly today, because he will not. The job of the third guy is to be just good enough to turn it over to the bullpen with a chance to win in game three, and Rolison has done just that in his two SEC starts so far. But this will be his biggest challenge yet.
3. Will Ole Miss find the timely hit? - Smashing four towering home runs is certainly a viable way to win a baseball game. But that hasn’t necessarily been how Ole Miss has won games this year, and likely won’t be the case in the finale. It should be noted that the Rebels were outhit last night in the win with six hits to LSU’s seven, and the Rebels will need to string together hits and base runners today against the freshman Walker to have a chance. This team has struggled at times plating runners in scoring position, and will need a couple of big hits in timely situations if it wishes to leave Baton Rouge with a second win.
4. Nick Fortes behind the plate- A lot has been made of the sophomore catcher’s bat and catalyzing this offense, and rightfully so. He hit a mammoth home run last night, too. But Fortes has been strong defensively as well. LSU picked on him in the opener a bit and ran a lot, but last night Fortes hosed a couple of guys stealing and made a number of big blocks in the dirt in the later innings, one of them saved a run in the eighth after a Cole Zabowski error planted Greg Diechmann on second base. A sturdy backstop is a plus in any game you play in, but will be even more vital in the later innings of as close rubber game with SEC West implications.
5. Ole Miss’ energy- Tate Blackman, David Parkinson and Mike Bianco all mentioned that number looming in everyone’s head in the postgame last night: 1982. This team is fully aware that Ole Miss hasn’t won a series in Baton Rouge in 35 years and wants to be the ones that change that. Tate Blackman called it “history” and Parkinson acknowledged how big it would be for this team’s confidence. Obviously, energy alone isn’t going to win baseball games but it will be worth watching the body language of this team that is motivated to end this drought. Ole Miss certainly swung the bat like an angry team last night, and pitched that way too. Freshman Will Ethridge said this following the win last night:
“We had a fire inside our bodies, and wanted to beat the crap out of them.”
We’ll see if that fire sparks one more win from this team. First pitch is slated for 2:00 p.m.