Rebels return home to face Gamecocks

The time is now if No. 19 Ole Miss is to make a run at hosting a fourth straight NCAA regional, but that task won't be easy with fourth-ranked and No. 1 RPI South Carolina invading Oxford for a weekend tilt.

The road was unkind to the Rebels (25-14, 8-7) after a 1-4 skid over the past 10 days, but the three-game set against the Gamecocks (30-8, 9-6) kicks off a seven-game homestand. Ole Miss is optimistic about the upcoming slate, yet also knows that South Carolina can make the weekend unpleasant if the Rebels aren't clicking in all phases.

"We've had a tough couple of games," head coach Mike Bianco said. "We had a tough loss in Hattiesburg last week and then didn't play very well in Baton Rouge until Sunday. We've got arguably the best team in the SEC coming in, in South Carolina. Of course, that's life in the SEC and it doesn't get any easier. They have power, and they also pitch and play defense. You don't play well, you don't win.

"Playing at home is definitely exciting. At some point it all comes down to winning games, and being at home gives you the best opportunity for that."

While the Rebels are attempting to regain form, the Gamecocks are sky-high with a four-game winning streak that includes two overwhelming victories against Auburn and a doubling up of rival Clemson. South Carolina surrendered last Friday's game against the Tigers 16-1 but rebounded to crush Auburn 10-1 and 18-4 respectively to take the series.

The Gamecocks took two-of-three from Ole Miss in 2006 at Columbia, and the home team has won the weekend for six straight seasons. USC is 4-2 this season in SEC road games and 6-3 against the West, while the Rebels are 4-2 in SEC home contests and 3-3 against the East.

Runs should be at a premium as the teams tout the top pitching staffs in the SEC. South Carolina is the only conference team with a sub-three ERA at 2.98. Ole Miss is close behind at 3.28. The Rebels are familiar with low scoring, close affairs, but that isn't necessarily a good thing according to Bianco.

"Our bullpen has blown some saves and suffered a rough time, but we are in that situation way too often," Bianco said. "It's all part of putting complete games together. There has been some misfortune and hopefully we can correct that."

Familiar faces will most likely again be featured out of the Ole Miss bullpen with Cody Satterwhite and Scott Bittle being the main candidates called upon to close out games. Satterwhite is 100 percent healthy and could start seeing extended outings, while the embattled Bittle has Bianco's confidence and a quality stat line.

"The problem goes deeper than just Bittle or a failure to close out games," Bianco said. "Scott leads the league in saves and I think blown saves also if they keep that stat. Someone can look at that and understand that Ole Miss is continuously in these type of games. During them, every mistake is magnified. Scott's ERA is 1.8, and he has struck out something like 48 people in 24 innings.

"Cody has been great lately, and his health will allow us more freedom. I am confident that he can start coming in during the sixth or seventh and go the distance."

Offensively, the suspect Rebel offense has come alive of late with 25 runs scored in the last two games. For the year, Ole Miss is led by a pair of juniors in Justin Henry and Zack Cozart. Henry has been on season all year and has not cooled down. He headlines the team at .417, and Cozart has shaken off a slow start to bat .342. Justin's brother Jordan Henry had four hits Tuesday in the Governor's Cup.

The Gamecocks are at their best when a ball leaves the yard. USC is 27-4 this year when it hits at least one home run. South Carolina hits .315 as a team and is opportunistic with 39 stolen bases in 45 chances.

On the mound, USC Friday night starter Harris Honeycutt will be a tough assignment for Ole Miss. The right-hander is 7-1 this year and 15-1 in his career at Carolina. His one loss did come at the hands of Auburn last weekend. Honeycutt allowed eight runs in four innings during that outing.

All three games will be televised by Sports South. Times are 6:30 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

"As disappointed as the guys were after losing to State Tuesday, there is a lot of baseball left," Bianco said. "All goals are in front of us, but it isn't about close games. It is time to win."

South Carolina starters

Fri: Harris Honeycutt, RHP (7-1, 2.65)

Sat: Arik Hempy RHP (3-0, 1.86)

Sun: TBA

Ole Miss starters

Fri: Will Kline, RHP (4-1, 2.92)

Sat: Lance Lynn, RHP (3-3, 3.02)

Sun: Nathan Baker, LHP (5-1, 2.96)

SEC schedule

Alabama at Auburn

Arkansas at Georgia

Kentucky at Florida

LSU at Mississippi State

Tennessee at Vanderbilt

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