Southern Miss comes to town tonight and the Rebels need a win.
The Golden Eagles won't be easy to beat, although for Ole Miss right now no team is. USM is ranked as high as 16th in the country in at least one poll and sports a 20-6 mark coming into the contest against the rivals from north Mississippi.
The game is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field. Freshman LHP Brett Bukvich (3-2, 2.39 ERA, 6 appearances, 5 starts) is on the mound for the Rebs, while USM will run sophomore RHP Barry Bowden (0-1, 4.22 ERA, 3 appearances, 2 starts) out to the hill.
Ole Miss is coming off a sweep at the hands of Alabama to fall to 1-5 in Southeastern Conference play. The Rebels, ranked nationally early in the season, are 13-11 overall.
USM has won seven of its last eight games overall. While the Rebels were losing three games in Tuscaloosa, the Golden Eagles were winning three in Birmingham, sweeping UAB in Conference USA action.
The Rebels continue to have trouble finding the right combination of pitchers for the weekend. Freshman Cody Satterwhite was moved to Friday night and didn't even make it through the first inning of a 12-2 loss. Junior Garrett White got the Saturday start and gave the Rebels a chance to win. But after Zack Cozart's grand slam in the top of the ninth gave UM an 8-7 lead, Rebel relievers couldn't shut down the Tide and Bama won 9-8 in 10 innings. On Sunday after Lance Lynn pitched well into the sixth inning with Ole Miss leading, again Rebel relievers struggled and Alabama won 9-2.
But Tuesday games with Bukvich starting have been different. After his 0-2 start with Rebel losses to Samford and Arkansas State, the Rebels have beaten Murray State, Arkansas State, and Memphis behind solid performances on the mound by starter Bukvich.
Some numbers that have become a bit scary are the offensive ones for the Rebels. Some of the big hitters, some of the more experienced batters, just aren't producing. It's become a disturbing trend the Rebels hope to snap out of soon.
After a terrific fall and preseason at the plate, Rebel bats have cooled off considerably. Through the first two weekends of SEC play: Alex Presley .200, Justin Brashear .188, Mark Wright .157, Evan Button .157, Chris Coghlan .150, Jon-Jon Hancock .143. Until some of those veterans (Button is a rookie) start hitting again, the Rebels will struggle to win any games.
Bright spots at the plate have been team captain Justin Henry, batting .360 in conference games, Cozart at .280, and C.J. Ketchum at .261.
Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco said on Monday he and his staff would continue to evaluate the weekend rotation and try to figure out the best possible scenario for victory. But tonight's concern is Southern Mississippi and trying to get a win – to help the won-loss record and to try to rebuild some lost confidence for the players, a confidence that seems to slip a bit with each passing loss.
"You have to try to stay positive now and believe things will turn around," Bianco said. "The negative is we're 13-11 (overall) and 1-5 in the league. But we've only played two (SEC) weekends. There are some teams with only one or two (SEC) wins. That's the nature of the SEC.
"We've got to get rid of the bad feeling and the bad taste," he continued as he pointed toward the USM game. "Lot of games left. Lot of season left. But at some point we have to stop it, turn it around, and start going in the other direction. Hopefully that time is coming real soon."
Bianco says that while the Rebels have opportunities to gets things right by having them turn in the right direction in games, he says the coaches are constantly looking for ways to lift the team and help them right the ship.
"Certainly there are things we work on with guys on the mound and at the plate," he said. "But right now it's not just one guy. If it was just this hitter or that pitcher, then it would be easier to fix. But right now it's a lot bigger than that."
Contagious. That's the word used a lot in baseball when it comes to hitting or pitching or winning.
"The truth is success, especially offensively, can be a mental thing," he said. "Hitting can be contagious. So can not hitting. As coaches you wish you could bottle that confidence up and pass that energy and belief around. But it's amazing how sometimes it's there and sometimes it's not. There are fundamentals involved and there's the mental side as well."
Bianco admits this team is less confident at this point because through 24 games it hasn't really experienced any amount of continual success.
"If we'd gotten off to a great start and were 17-3 or something or win a couple of SEC weekends and then have some trouble, then it's a little easier to rebound because you've had success as a team," he said. "We've had success as a program, but this particular team hasn't won more than three games in a row. With a lot of new kids and with some kids in different roles, it's more difficult.
"Last year even, we had a spurt where we lost two out of three to Vanderbilt, two out of three to Alabama, and two out of three to LSU, and our ERA went up about one run. We were 7-8 in SEC play (halfway through the conference season), and we'd lost three weekends in a row. We were really searching at that time. But then Eric Fowler became a weekend starter after some good performances. We won a close, tough, two out of three weekend against Georgia with some wins in the ninth. We then swept (Mississippi) State and things began to fall into place. We started to gain some confidence. We started pitching well. And we went 11-4 the last 15 games of the season. So we have to respond and answer the adversity, and that can be done."
Older players say it's a frustrating time but they keep pressing on.
"You look back and ask yourself ‘What could I have done differently to help us win the game or win this series?' Things like that," said Jon-Jon Hancock. "We're just going to have to go out and have some success and get that confidence back. Winning a few games in a row will help."
"We've just got to keep fighting," Zack Cozart said. "Once we win a couple of games, we'll have that confidence back. Even though we got swept this weekend, we still have confidence we can win."
Younger players agree. Button, the true freshman who arrived as an infielder, has been moved mostly to outfield. He was on fire at the plate early but has cooled off considerably lately.
"I hadn't played outfield since like seventh grade," he said. "I'm getting comfortable out there. It's been an adjustment. But I just want to play. Every time I see my name in the lineup, I get excited. My start (at the plate) was really amazing to me. I was like ‘This is easy.' But obviously knew I would get cold, which I am right now. Hopefully I can break out of it and the team can break out of it and we can win."
Button says SEC pitching is a different level than anything he saw early in the season.
"They hit their spots more," he said. "They don't walk (batters) as much. They make their pitches more than other pitchers we faced (early in the season)."
Button says getting better is on his mind a lot.
"I go to sleep at night thinking about it," he said. "I try to stay positive and remind myself I am a good hitter and that I will get it back. We're all in a slump right now and we'll break out of it. It's all confidence. We can do it."
Bianco says he and his staff continue to work to help put all the pieces together for this team to give it the best chance that it can to win.
"Our job is to figure it out and to push the right buttons," he said. "We don't have all the answers all the time, but that doesn't mean that we won't. Ultimately, and this is not passing the buck, they're the ones that do it (pointing to his team). And I'm not putting it all on them. I still think they're real good. We're just not playing very good. We need to find that again."
Searching Rebels host Golden Eagles tonight
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