A lot took place this weekend when Illinois-Chicago came to town for baseball. Some good, some not so good. The last two games mostly good, however.
That Friday night debacle seems a long way off now, the 4-1 uninspired setback to the Flames. But since they, like Maine and the Rebels, were an NCAA Regional team last year, playing at the Lincoln (Neb.) Regional, then I knew the competition probably wasn't going to be a "play like the usual northern teams do in February and March" situation.
Maine wasn't; neither was UIC. Good competition and good scheduling on the part of the Rebel coaches. The name Illinois-Chicago didn't jump out like some other NCAA Regional teams from last year might. Still it was a good test for this time of year. I mentioned in the press box after the Sunday game that it looked like to me UIC was as good as Maine, at least at this point. Most agreed.
So after Friday's little lackadaiscal evening on the diamond, Rebel coaches and team leaders went to work on the team's psyche. They called them out, told them they are a good team playing in a bigtime program but not playing like it. To recoin a phrase, their guts were checked, and only nine games had been played in the season.
When you have 56 regular season games, rally meetings or pep talks or wakeup calls will happen from time to time. After back to back losses (ASU, UIC) last Tuesday and Friday, it was time for one.
It showed early Saturday that the Rebels were trying to respond. Baseball can be cruel and even the best efforts will often go unrewarded. But the last two days of this series, the Rebels looked like a Top 20 team again.
Back to back shutouts are rare in baseball at any level. Throw in the fact that the two UM pitchers Saturday and the two Sunday are all new to the program and are experiencing this level of baseball for the first time makes it even more impressive.
Cody Satterwhite continues to look more and more like a bigtime college pitcher even at this stage in his college career. Hit 96 on the gun Saturday and was in the mid-90s a bunch. I'm already looking forward to seeing how the kid from Hillcrest handles a bases loaded, no-out, clean-up guy at the plate type deal which will surely come up in SEC play. He's got the right stuff to take care of those type situations. I want to see how he handles it when it happens against Vanderbilt or Alabama later this month.
Jesse Simpson came in and finished up for Satterwhite in Saturday's game. He hit a couple of batters but other than that got stronger as the final few frames went on. As Mike Bianco said after the game, when a team has been facing that powerful, blow it by them fast ball of mid-90s from Satterwhite and then you slip Simpson in with his 89 mph fast ball and his full array of pitches, that makes it tough on opposing hitters. Slider, change, curve, fastball. Simpson can keep batters off balance, and after watching Cody for six innings, the adjustment for the hitter is fairly monumental.
Lance Lynn has shown signs of improvement each time out, like nine strikeouts in relief against Arkansas State last Tuesday. On Sunday in his first start, Lynn showed why he was so highly recruited and drafted last summer. He had good command throughout his five-plus innings of work. Rebel fans were on their feet as he exited the field, applauding an impressive first start for the Hoosier.
I liked what Lynn said about the only hit he gave up Sunday. It was a call that likely could have gone either way – hit or error – and a hit for UIC was the one recorded rather than an error on Ole Miss outfielder Alex Presley. Lynn said this about that:
"That happens. It's just the way the game is, freak plays like that. Alex is a great outfielder and he will make that play nine out of ten times. A hit's a hit, and I'll give up more in my career while I'm here. So that was no big deal. As a pitcher you have to go up there and feel like you can't be touched. Today that was the mentality I took up there. My confidence is great right now, and as a pitcher you have to have that. You have to go out there and know you can get the job done."
Sounds like a mature attitude from a young Rebel pitcher making his early way in the collegiate ranks.
Garrett White is the lone non-freshman of the four to pitch the last two games. White's new to the program but a seasoned veteran who signed with the University of Texas Longhorns out of high school in suburban Austin but went the juco route. It's been apparent he was going to be in the mix for the Rebels this spring, and even admittedly not having his best stuff Sunday (he said it; Bianco said it, too), the Flames got just one hit and struck out five times in his three-plus innings of work.
The Rebel bats were more alive in the final two games of the series as well. Team captain Justin Henry talked a couple of times last week about the inconsistency of Rebel hitting so far. That seemed to change as the weekend went forward.
The Rebels got 15 hits in the 10-0 win and eight hits in the 5-0 win, but a lot of balls Sunday were hard hit and right at ‘em. The Rebels were effective at the plate both days.
So at 8-3 on the season, the Rebels can't afford too many more non-conference losses this season to have a nice non-league record to support a bid to host an NCAA Regional. The SEC mark weighs heavier, but if a few teams are close, then the non-conference record becomes even more important to the big picture.
Normally a 20-6 mark is a good standard for the non-conference record. As you can see, and with the likes of Mississippi State, USM (twice), Memphis (twice), and Arkansas State again among the remaining non-SEC games, there's a bit of an urgency to win most of the remaining 15 of them.
Brett Bukvich will take the mound Tuesday night at 6:30 against 1-8 Murray State in Oxford. It will be interesting to see how the redshirt freshman lefty rebounds from a tough one against ASU last Tuesday. Nick Hetland will start in Wednesday's game against the Thoroughbreds at 3 p.m. Since Nick has been a weekend starter and is in that group of four or five or maybe six that are in that weekend mix, then the Rebels should be in good shape in that one this midweek.
There is still no official word on the makeup for the rainout against Saint Louis. The Rebels are still one game short and that should be made up later in the season with some team – either Saint Louis or another opponent.
Rebs playing better as Murray State arrives
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