UM bats come alive late as Rebs win 4-1

Looking back at the weekend as a whole, the 13th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels were one key hit away on Saturday from sweeping a good No. 21 Evansville team at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field.

But it took a 4-1 Sunday victory, which included 14 hits, for the Rebels to feel pretty good about these past three days.

The Purple Aces were not a typical early-season northern team. They were an NCAA Regional team last year and played this weekend like they could become one again this season.

The Rebels took game one 6-4 Friday night, and on Saturday the Aces won 2-1 when the Rebels left 11 runners stranded.

Sunday's game, tied 1-1 through five and a half innings, turned into one of those contests where the better team's hitting finally met the lesser team's pitching. In other words, Rebel bats came alive a bit as Evansville got deeper into its bullpen.

"We know we're a good hitting team, and it will only get better," said Justin Henry, 4-for-5 on the day with an RBI.

Certainly that held true for Justin as the older of the Rebels' Henry brothers was 0-for-5 both of the first two days of this series before breaking out on Sunday.

"We were a hit or two away Saturday from sweeping the series," Justin said. "We got some big, timely hits today and made some things happen. Even though we had 14 hits, we only scored four runs. But we'll get better."

The Rebels broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the sixth inning with two runs. C.J. Ketchum started the frame off with an infield single. After Logan Power struck out, Jordan Henry got a base hit that hit the third base bag and rolled into the outfield. Kyle Mills came in to pinch hit for Evan Button, who had started today's game at third base. Mills reached on a fielder's choice to put runners on first and third.

"When you hit a ball like that, your first thought is to beat the throw to first," said Mills of his only at-bat on the day. "You just want to reach and keep the inning alive and not let it turn into a double play."

Which is what almost happened, except that Mills beat out the second baseman's relay throw to first.

With the inning still alive, Brett Basham came up next and scored pinch runner JoJo Tann (in the game for Ketchum) from third on a base hit over the third baseman's head, the Rebel catcher's second RBI of the day. Justin Henry then singled to right field to score Zach Miller, who was pinch running for Mills.

In the seventh the Rebels added another run on an RBI single by Power to left which scored Tann who had doubled down the third base line.

Scott Bittle relieved starter Brett Bukvich to start the seventh and pitched the last three innings, getting his first save as a Rebel. The Rebs led 3-1 at the time, and Bittle said his second appearance as a Rebel was better than his first.

"I had those first-game jitters out of the way this time," said Bittle, who went the final three innings with one hit and no runs, a walk and four strikeouts. "I had things a little more fine-tuned today."

Last Sunday Bittle had closed out the Rebels 4-0 win over New Orleans with no damage and three strikeouts in only one inning pitched.

In addition to Justin's big day at the plate, brother Jordan, the true freshman, was 2-for-3 and another true frosh, Andrew Clark, was 2-for-4.

Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco said the Rebels got a little bit better this weekend as they competed against a good team from the Missouri Valley Conference, which fell to 3-3 with the loss.

"They just compete so hard," Bianco said of the Purple Aces. "They don't make many mistakes, they don't walk back to back batters, they just do things to win games. A good test for us this weekend."

Although the hitting has been slow to come around, Bianco said the Rebels played well in other aspects until the hitting finally broke loose late on Sunday.

"We pitched well all weekend, and we played well defensively," said Bianco, his team now 4-1 on the season with a game Tuesday at 3 p.m. in Oxford against Memphis. "We did a lot of things well, and there are a lot of areas we can get better."

Bianco said he felt Bukvich, who went six innings, allowing one run on four hits with three strikeouts and two walks, was good but maybe not great in this one.

"Like our other two starters this weekend (Will Kline, Lance Lynn), Brett didn't have his best day from a "stuff" standpoint," Bianco said.

Bukvich agreed with his coach after his first start of the season. The left-hander had gotten a save in the 7-2 Rebel season-opening win against New Orleans last weekend.

"It wasn't my best stuff," Bukvich said of today's performance. "But I hit my spots and made it through."

Reliever Jeremy Kuester, the second of three Purple Aces pitchers in the contest, got the loss to fall to 0-1 on the season.

Ole Miss will send true freshman left-hander Nathan Baker, from Cordova, Tenn., to the mound against Memphis on Tuesday. Baker pitched in relief of starter Lynn in Saturday's 2-1 UM loss to Evansville, pitching three innings with two hits and three strikeouts but no walks or runs.

The game Tuesday will be the season opener for the Tigers.

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