Here are five things to look for as the Rebels begin a pivotal series and aim to get their conference record back to .500
1. Tanner Houck- Ole Miss is about to hit a stretch of its season in which it will face an elite arm each Friday night for the next five weeks. This veteran right-hander is one of the most dominant pitchers in this league. He's got an electric fastball that will sit in the mid to upper 90's with a lot of movement. It is difficult not only to catch up too, but also to track. Dallas Woolfolk's fastball is similar if you're looking for a comparison. Houck's slider is really good, and is his wipeout pitch. He's struck out 60 in 58.1 innings and boasts a 2.93 ERA. Houck is as good as they come in this league, and will give Ole Miss all it can handle and more at the plate.
2. How will James McArthur rebound?- The lanky righty was ambushed by LSU last Thursday night in an ugly 15-2 defeat. The Tigers were all over his fastball, and touched him up for six runs on nine hits in 4.2 innings. McArthur has been steady for this team this season, and that was really the first time he's been hit hard by any opponent. It was the most runs and hits he's given up in an outing this year. Most pitchers are going to have nights where their stuff just isn't there. Tonight will be important for McArthur to get back on the right trajectory and wash away last week's outing.
3. Missouri on base- The Tigers have stolen 62 bases in 84 attempts this season. That leads the SEC, and also points towards the idea that this team will test Nick Fortes (or Cooper Johnson) behind the plate. This could possibly put Mike Bianco in a little bit of a dilemma. Fortes offers more at the plate, where Johnson has struggled mightily. But Johnson is a great defensive catcher with a cannon of an arm. Is Bianco willing to give up Fortes' bat and stick Johnson in the lineup if Missouri has success running on Fortes? It will certainly be interesting to see. Wednesday's lineup had Fortes playing first base with Johnson behind the plate. Bianco loves to test different lineups in the midweek, but might have done some foreshadowing with that.
4. Bottom of the order- Bianco mentioned in practice earlier this week that the bottom of the lineup has to get going. Ole Miss' four home runs in its Friday win in Baton Rouge came from one through five in the order, while the bottom portion of it went 1-12. Everyone top to bottom teed off on some inferior Arkansas-Pine Bluff pitching on Wednesday, so tonight will be more telling as to how the bottom of the Rebel order performs.
5. First base- This has been a revolving door to say the least this year. Cole Zabowski, Chase Cockrell, Colby Bortles, Nick Fortes and Will Golsan have all seen time here just in the last two weeks as Bianco tries to blend some offensive pop into the lineup, while shoring up his first base defense, which has not been good this year. The best defensive option is clearly Bortles, and that was evident in the opener at LSU when Bortles drew the start there. He made three terrific plays in foul ground, and made a number of stops defensively. Bortles fits the bill with a large, athletic frame too. The issue is that it leaves a hole at third base that Bianco attempted to fill with Kyle Watson, who looked good in bunt defense, but made an error in the midst of that game spiraling out of control. First base is something to keep an eye on this weekend, because Bianco badly wants some stability here, which would help the entire lineup become more concrete.
First pitch tonight is slated for 6:30 p.m.