Mike Bianco (Josh McCoy)

A season marred by inconsistency in multiple facets officially ended for Ole Miss on Monday

Colby Bortles and Tate Blackman sat in the home dugout at Swayze Field, and gazed out onto the field while waiting to speak to local media on Monday afternoon.

The two were veterans on a team whose roster was made up of 28 underclassmen, a handful of juniors and two seniors. Bortles - a senior - was looking out onto a field that he will never play another game on.

"It has been a great four years. I wouldn't change it for the world," Bortles said. "I have had great coaches, great teammates. It has been awesome. Thank you to Coach B(ianco), Coach Clem(ent) and Coach Laff(erty). I have great friends that I consider my family now. It was an awesome experience."

Depending on the MLB Draft in a couple of weeks, same could possibly be said for Blackman, who will go home to Florida to ponder his options. The two team captains have played baseball together since they were eight years old, and anchored a young team that couldn't ever seem to get out of its own way. 

The group raced out of the gates to a 7-0 start, sweeping nationally ranked East Carolina and UNC-Wilmington, before being humbled at the Shiners College Classic in Houston. As the season wore on, the struggles of Ole Miss' first two opponents began to make those wins lose their teeth as the struggles at the plate slowly surfaced. 

It managed to pitch its way through a mid-March slump, and took two of three from Vanderbilt to open SEC play. But then sputtered to a 3-6 start after going 1-5 against Kentucky and Mississippi State.

"It was a lot of things," head coach Mike Bianco said. "Certainly the offense was very inconsistent."

A sweep of a bad Alabama team brought the Rebels back to level playing ground at 6-6 in SEC play, but progress never hardened to the point of anything concrete. There were flashes of it all coming together, like back-ending a series over Missouri after a woeful Friday night loss, and then following it up with a near-sweep of Arkansas on the road in weekend that included six home runs.

But Ole Miss was then swept at Florida on its way to a 3-6 finish to the season in SEC play.  

"We felt like the whole year 'Alright this is it. We are going to go on a run, win 10 or 15 straight or whatever," Bortles said. "But it never happened. You look back on it and wonder what if, but at the end of the day you can't do that. You have to move forward. Not me personally, but it is a bright future for Ole Miss Baseball and I am looking forward to seeing what they can do for the next couple of years. It will be special for them."

There was a pattern in some of the losses for this team. It was thrashed in series openers against Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M, Missouri and LSU. But responded to take a game in four of the five and even took the series in two of them. A lot could be said about this team, but to its credit, it did respond multiple times when it could have waved the white flag on the season. Back-ending series like A&M and Missouri are proof of that, and Ole Miss very nearly took the final two in Baton Rouge. 

The offense remained in the bottom of the SEC in most statistical categories, and the pitching kept the team afloat for a while. But as the production on the mound crumbled down the stretch, so did the team's postseason chances.

"I don't think we pitched well down the stretch," Bianco said. "A team that kind of hung their hat at the beginning of the year on pitching. We did not play solid enough defense. There were times where we could be really good defensively. We were consistently inconsistent. We just didn't do enough things well time in and time out."

An example of the faltering defense came in the season's final game. Ole Miss scrapped for four runs off of Auburn's Friday and Saturday night arms, but three errors and a misplay on a bunt gave the Tigers additional outs, and it cost the Rebels the game, and perhaps a birth in the postseason.

"I think that is the thing that hurts," Bianco said. "It is not that you look at this team and say that they are not talented enough or not good enough This is a team that won some big weekends against good people."

The early exit in Hoover forced the team to sit and watch how other conference tournaments unfolded, hoping the chips fell in their favor on Selection Monday.

"Seeing our name not get called, it hurt," Blackman said. "You're out here grinding every day with your brothers and putting all the sweat into it. It is hard to put it into words, but it is not a fun experience."

The program brought in the number one recruiting class in the country to help them this season, which naturally heightened expectations.

It got contributions from Cooper Johnson, Thomas Dillard, Ryan Rolison, Grae Kessinger and Houston Roth among others. 

But asking a group of freshmen to carry a team is tough. Overall, freshmen aside but not excluded, all of the pieces on this roster never quite gelled, and some didn't develop as quickly as hoped.

There will be turnover in the offseason as there is in any program, and likely even some unrelated to the MLB Draft. David Parkinson, Tate Blackman, Will Stokes, Will Golsan, and Brady Feigl are among those eligible to leave. What happens with any of them remains to be seen.

The cupboard isn't bare, though, and Ole Miss brings a lot of useful parts back next season, but will have to wonder until then why they never quite fit in 2017. 


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