Purdue games like SEC series for Rebs

Following three games this weekend against the Boilermakers, Ole Miss hosts USM Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Oxford.

This weekend's baseball action with Purdue is like a conference series for Ole Miss. The Rebels will basically go through the same routine as they will on weekends for the next three-plus months.

The Boilermakers aren't a power in baseball. Nobody in the Big 10 is all that big on baseball, except perhaps Minnesota, who has a solid program (and plays inside in the Metrodome a lot which helps), and Ohio State since they have committed to baseball, built a stadium a lot like ours, and hosted Regionals, and Michigan who in the past a handful of times was better than average.

You never hear of Penn State or Indiana or Iowa having great baseball. Wisconsin even dropped baseball a few seasons ago. Just too cold for the sport in the winter and spring in Madison.

But Rebel fans seem to appreciate the fact that if the program is bringing a northern team to Oxford early in the season that it's at least a name school from a big-time (BCS, as some would say) conference. Purdue fits that bill.

Sure the Rebels could lose a game or two this weekend. When you line up and play in any sport that's a possibility. But there's also a good chance for a sweep given the fact that Purdue has only played one series, against Florida Atlantic in south Florida last weekend, and is 1-2 on the season.

Nothing against the Boilers and their baseball abilities, but for Ole Miss this will be more of a continuation of learning about themselves and what the current Rebel team is all about.

"The first two weekends probably didn't do us justice from the aspect of getting ready for SEC play, since the first weekend was a tournament and we played three different teams, and then last weekend we had the rainout on Sunday," Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said. "This weekend and then next weekend (against Sam Houston State in Oxford) are very important to helping us get ready for conference play."

A lot of coaches – Carol Ross comes to mind who says the same type things – use the non-conference to get their team ready, as much as anything else, for conference play. That's why you would see the Lady Rebels, even in losing to powers like Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech early, learn from them and go on to good seasons even after losses, which happened this season.

Bianco agrees and says three-game series in the early part of the season are for winning but also for a lot of other things.

"How do you play a weekend series? How do you play 27 innings, three games in a row, Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, much like we will do in two weeks here against Florida. What about the rotation? The starters? The relievers? We'll look at a more consistent lineup rather than so many guys playing; we'll start narrowing it down more. These next two weekends are almost dry runs for conference play.

"That doesn't mean we don‘t want to win them and we aren't looking at them as very important to win. But it's time to figure out more who is going to be the first guy out of the bullpen and who is going to pinch hit and who is playing first base when Stephen Head pitches and who is going to be the DH. All those things and more."

Junior Brian Pettway says this team continues to learn about itself.

"We've had a few guys in different positions and a couple of newcomers playing for us," he said. "We're still getting comfortable and getting used to playing together. We're not playing our best yet, and we continue to work on things and get better. It was good to see us come out and bounce back (Wednesday in a 10-1 win over Northwestern State) after losing Tuesday (8-7 to the same team). That gives us more confidence going into the weekend."

A weekend that, again, will feel a lot like a conference series.

"We're looking forward to the Purdue series," said starting catcher Barry Gunther. "Hopefully we can get three wins. We will play it just like a conference series. It's all about finding out more about yourselves as you try to win. Every game counts and every game is important. We've lost three games by one run. We want to try to put that behind us and go from here, starting with a big series this weekend against Purdue."

Junior right-hander Mark Holliman (1-0, 6.00 ERA) is scheduled to start for Ole Miss tonight, opposite senior right-hander Scott Byrnes (0-0, 0.00 ERA) for the Boilers.

On Saturday, junior left-hander Stephen Head (1-0, 2.77 ERA) is slated to pitch for the Rebels, while the Purdue is expected to counter with junior southpaw Brent Coudron (0-0, 5.40 ERA). Junior right-hander Anthony Cupps (2-1, 4.15 ERA) is scheduled to start Sunday for Ole Miss, while Purdue will send senior right-hander Mitch Pruemer (1-0, 2.35 ERA) to the mound.

The gametimes are 6:30 tonight, 1:30 Saturday, and 12 noon on Sunday. The noon finale start is because of Purdue's travel plans.

The Rebels enter the weekend having recorded 10 or more hits in six straight games, hitting .358 in that stretch. For the season, Ole Miss is hitting .328, led by sophomore outfielder Mark Wright and freshman DH Jon-Jon Hancock. Wright leads the team with a .450 average and has one home run and six RBI. Hancock is batting .409 with two home runs and five RBI.

Pettway carries a nine-game hit streak, matching his career long. He is hitting .385 with a team-high three home runs and has eight RBI.

Wright has been a real positive for the Rebels so far. His grand slam in the bottom of the first Wednesday helped the Rebels move out to a 6-0 lead and never look back.

"This year I have a more consistent approach at the plate," said the sophomore from Germantown (Tenn.) High. "Last year I didn't seem to get as comfortable at the plate because I was so in and out of games, never knowing when I was going to get an at-bat. Just playing more this year has already helped."

When he stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded Wednesday, Wright clearly was in a comfort zone – and ready to put some runs up for the Rebels.

"It goes through your mind," he said of a possible four RBI at-bat, "but if you're thinking grand slam, chances are you're not going to hit one. I was just trying to hit a line drive or something up the middle and get us some runs and keep the flow going for the team. I just got one up and it went out."

After this weekend's three-game SEC-Big Ten series, the Rebels host Southern Mississippi in Oxford at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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