Press Box Notebook (Oxford Regional edition)

The Rebels have gotten this far with not only good starting pitchers but a deep staff. Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco and pitching coach Kyle Bunn talk about the Rebels and their effective arms, especially some of the key relievers and their performances lately.

Rain has played havoc with the Ole Miss baseball team's plans this week. After taking Monday off to recover from the SEC Tournament and get ready for the NCAA Regional coming up this weekend, the Rebels haven't been able to get on the field for any outside work.

Although not the greatest substitute for being on the actual playing field, that's where outstanding facilities can come in handy. The baseball team worked inside the IPF Wednesday as well as in the Merkel Hitting Complex and also underneath the first base grandstands where the indoor bullpens are located.

They are hopeful the weather is better Thursday for team practices. Ole Miss (44-18) practices at 10 a.m. followed by USM (40-18) at 11:30 a.m., Oklahoma (33-24) at 1 p.m., and Maine (34-17) at 2:30 p.m.

Last year the day before the Regional dawned sunny and clear, but after Ole Miss practiced that morning, the others were washed out. One team – Washington - was on the field for a short while until the rain started, but the other teams - Tulane and Western Kentucky - never got on it at all as the rains unloaded in a hurry.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, there is a banquet in the new IPF for teams and coaches. Nice chance to show that beautiful new facility off to the visitors. Even the Oklahoma folks should be impressed.

I'm sure the USM folks will realize how far ahead we are in facilities now. Maine will understand more why not only do they beat MSU in football but so do we. (Just had to get that last one in there.)

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Entering postseason play pitching becomes such an important part of a team's plans and ultimate success. Few if any teams have the arms and depth the Rebels have.

"In my opinion it's the deepest pitching staff in the country," Rebel pitching coach Kyle Bunn said. "How many teams can run out five arms that can start a game that could all be weekend starters in the SEC? Holliman, Maloney, Fowler, Head, Cupps. That's an impressive lineup."

He says with so many good arms that it's been part of the puzzle to juggle the pieces together and make sure the right guy is on the mound in the right situation.

"And pitchers may not be throwing as much during the course of a season, say not as much as a Holliman, Maloney, or Fowler," Bunn said. "But you hope that their time is coming. Anthony and I talked about that during the Arkansas weekend. I told him there just weren't that many situations opening up for him. He was pitching as well as he had all year. I just told him his time was coming, and when it did that he would do something special for us."

A week later, Cupps went out and pitched a complete, seven-inning, 10-run-ruled 14-1 win over Florida on Saturday in game one that day at Hoover.

"When you pitch a one-run game against the SEC champion over seven innings with 69 pitches," Bunn said, "then you've done something special. That was a jump start for us to be able to get what we did the following game out of Baumgardner and Stone."

Cupps, who started the first four weekends of SEC play this season for the Rebels on Sunday, said that while the past month hasn't been easy, he knows now is his time to step up again.

"I think it's good (the win Saturday over Florida) to get me going into the postseason," he said. "I think it was one of the best games I've thrown this year.

"I always try to go into a game and be aggressive. But I just felt like I was so ready to attack the zone. I just felt I had nothing to lose and I wanted to go out and attack the zone as hard as I could."

Obviously Cupps got some run support in that one too as the Rebels rolled the Gators.

Later Stoney Stone came in to relieve starter Tommy Baumgardner in the second game on Saturday and was effective the final three innings.

"It felt good to come in and contribute in a big game like that," said the junior RHP who recorded his first career save in the 4-2 UM win, allowing one run on two hits with one walk and striking out four over the final three innings. "I just went out and did what I needed to do."

Stone said the life of a reliever has lots of moments of uncertainty.

"There's a lot of guesswork," said Stone, who is 3-0 with a save in nine appearances and a 3.92 ERA. "You just have to stay in the game, because you never know when you'll get called. Like in the Florida game, I wasn't necessarily expecting to go in. Then I got the call, and there I was."

The Rebs led 4-1 when Baumgardner departed and Stone entered. Two of the four strikeouts for Stone were against SEC Player of the Year Matt LaPorta, the last one a Kodak moment to end the contest.

The picture of Stoney pumping his fist immediately following the last pitch showed up in several places, including the Birmingham paper and the Daily Mississippian.

"Our pitching staff is so deep," Stone said. "We've got eight or nine or ten guys that travel with us, and all of them can get the job done."

Stone said it's those situations like the one Saturday that he's worked to be ready when needed.

"They might not have been in that big a situation or against that good of a team," he said, "but I've been preparing for those situations my whole life. High school juco, and now here. My whole mindset and thought process is just to go out there and get them out."

Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said Saturday was indeed a positive day on the mound for the Rebels. But so was Sunday as well.

"Certainly in game six and you're pitching your No. 1 (Mark Holliman) for the second time and you're pitching Jon-Jon Hancock, and then Stephen for the third time that week, to give up only four runs is pretty good," he said. "I think all three of those guys are good enough to pitch shutouts. But to only give up four runs gave us a chance to win."

Four runs is the magic number this staff has talked about all season.

"Our goal is always to only allow the other team to score four runs or less," Bianco said. "We did that Sunday. We've done that in 18 of the last 20 games we've played, which is impressive."

Bianco said Cupps set the tone for the day in the first game against Florida and proved what a pitcher should do during postseason tournament time.

"You can't pitch much better than Anthony pitched," he said. "Having not pitched in like three weeks, he could have run out there and been stale. It's one of those half-empty, half-full type things. He could have been off. But he ran out there and pitched very well. I just attribute that to him being a very good pitcher."

Bianco said Cupps' attitude all year, especially in Hoover, has been very good.

"Here's a guy who has been a weekend starter and then doesn't pitch as much. He was asked by reporters if it was disappointing not to be starting. And his answer is that we're winning and that's what's important. I've heard him say that several times. That says a lot about him for him to feel that way.

"Same for Tommy Baumgardner. Here's a guy that warmed up three days in a row that never got the call. And then to take the ball in game five and to get us through six innings and pitch out of jam after jam and pitch maybe his best performance of the year, now that was impressive."

Bianco obviously works closely with the pitchers. But that's the kind of coach he is. He wants to be involved with all aspects.

"I like being hands on," he said. "I like dealing with the hitters and the pitchers. Today (Wednesday) I was working with the baserunners. I do that because I want to coach. I don't want to just always delegate. But I also know you need great assistants. They're with the players 100 percent of the time. That's why Kyle's the pitching coach, Dan's the baserunning coach and works with the infielders, and Stuart's the hitting coach and works with the outfielders. That's their responsibilities on a day to day basis. But I want to be there to help them and interject my thoughts.

"Of course I am with the pitchers more," he said, "because it's the most important aspect of the game."

Bianco admits he does tend to leave a pitcher in longer than maybe some coaches, or that he might not be as quick to take a guy out as some others. But he has his reasons.

"For example, let's say I have Mark Holliman out there throwing 90-96. Why should I take him out? Because a team got a couple of hits and it's the seventh inning? Or that he's got 100 pitches? Or that we make a change so we can bring in a guy throwing 85? Sometimes it just doesn't work out.

"Like the Florida game (in Hoover on Thursday) that we lost 10-7. We took the lead 7-5 and Head's ready to go. But Head threw 40 pitches the night before (in a 3-1 win over Alabama). It's the SEC Tournament. We have a two-run lead. Matt Maloney's last pitch was like 91 miles per hour. I know he's at 100 pitches. But I'd like for him to go one more inning through the middle of their lineup. We know Matt Maloney's not pitching again in this tournament. Stephen is.

"So I leave him in and he walks the lead-off guy and then the conference player of the year gets a double. So I bring Stephen in. Of course at that point you think about the fact that maybe you should have brought Stephen in to start the inning."

An example of when things did work out was against Florida in the second game on Saturday. It was in the sixth. There was one out and the bases were loaded. Bianco visited Baumgardner, and the junior lefty told his coach he'd get out of it.

Bianco headed back to the dugout, and the next Gator hit a ground ball to Chris Coghlan at third. He then threw to first for a double play to end the inning en route to a 4-2 UM win and a trip to the championship game.

Bianco says he basically sticks with his guys because he believes in them.

"I just have a lot of confidence in them," he said. "It's hard to take a pitcher out like Tommy who says ‘Coach I'll get them out.' I left him in and it worked. Sometimes it doesn't. I just look at it as I have a lot of belief that our guys will get the job done.

"Maybe I don't go out there as often as some other coaches. But the bottom line is I believe our pitchers are just better than the others. Mark Holliman, Matt Maloney, Eric Fowler. They're so good that I just want to go with them as long as I can."

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There is no word at all on whether Stephen King, the author whose books have often made it to the big screen, will attend the Regional. He's a big Black Bears supporter who lives in Maine. He's been to Oxford before.

With all the Oxford literary connections and the fact that John Grisham is also a huge baseball fan, I suppose there's a chance we might see one or both at the Oxford Regional.

Grisham was in attendance at the 1994 SEC West Tournament at Swayze Field. He sat in the press box with Ron Polk after the State head coach got ejected in a game.

Again, no word at all that King or Grisham might be here this weekend. Just a sidenote that could wind up with some interesting possibilities. We shall see.

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Thursday starts all the activities for the weekend, even though play does not begin until Friday. Bianco says it's all lined up for the Rebels to make some noise the next few days and also next weekend.

"Everybody's excited, but I think everybody expected it," he said of hosting for the second straight year. "That's not just the coaches and players, that's the administrators and fans. The bottom line now is we have to go out and play well and win. It's something we deserved because we played well all year. And since we're a national seed, we can play at home. Now we've got to finish."

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