2007 is so far a mirror image of the previous Diamond Rebs' campaign as Ole Miss is sporting that same conference record after a head-scratching effort at Tennessee this past weekend. Two regular-season series remain, and it is anyone's guess if Ole Miss can duplicate last year's finish of 4-2 that spring boarded them to the SEC Tournament title.
Baseball is all about being in a good position late and getting hot when it is necessary. The position isn't perfect, but it could no doubt be worse. Ole Miss is sitting in fourth place overall in the conference and still has a No. 12 RPI in its possession despite the disappointing past Friday and Saturday. That RPI is fourth in the league, but the Rebels have claimed series victories over No. 5 South Carolina and No. 6 Mississippi State.
It is impossible to predict whether or not Ole Miss will heat up over the next three weeks, but it is feasible to examine what is holding the team together and what has to improve for the Rebels to make that jump from good club to an elite club. As always, start with what is working.
The starting rotation has been the glue holding it together from the beginning and remains that way today. Will Kline and Lance Lynn are arguably the best one-two punch in the league, while Nathan Baker has stabilized the Sunday slot and is undefeated in conference play. Depth is also an advantage if needed during tournament action. In addition to those three, Brett Bukvich, Craig Rodriguez and Cody Satterwhite have all won as weekend starters during their careers. Rodriguez and Satterwhite are former Friday night guys, and Bukvich began the season starting on Sundays. That gives head coach Mike Bianco three right handers and three left handers, who have all been successful against quality competition.
Since returning from an arm injury, Satterwhite deserves a category all to his own. The sophomore has brought consistency to the closer role and can also pitch an extended outing. He has three saves this season, as well as an appearance where he went nine shutout innings against MSU. Satterwhite is armed with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and must be no less than dominant for the Rebels to achieve their goals.
The Henry Brothers
Brothers Jordan and Justin Henry have set the table for the Ole Miss offense all season with solid contact hitting and above average speed. The run-producing portion of the order has struggled, but the brothers are making the most of every hit behind them by being on base. Infield singles and stolen bases are increasing the RBI capability for the meat of the order. Each brother has 79 hits to lead the entire SEC.
The Rebels topping the conference in fielding percentage is vital considering the amount of one-run games. Ole Miss has been successful with pitching and tight defense so late-inning errors must be avoided. Offenses thrive on extra outs, and the Rebels are the stingiest team in the SEC when it comes to giving them.
Swayze Field has been a success when it comes to hosting regionals so the NCAA is begging Ole Miss for an opportunity to name them a host site. Oxford set nationwide highs last season during the regional and super regional. Finishing strong with a competitive and comparable resume will keep the Rebels off the road come elimination time. That is important since Ole Miss is only 8-9 in another team's backyard.
And now what needs to improve...
Satterwhite has been great and several more have shown flashes, but reliable shutdown relief arms aren't readily available in the Ole Miss pen. Blown saves and late-game letdowns are becoming too common. Scott Bittle performed well on Sunday against the Vols, but that was a first in league games. Scouting reports have been passed around and teams aren't whiffing at Bittle's cutter that breaks out of the strike zone. The sophomore has to place his fastball down and use the cutter as an out pitch instead of his primary weapon. Justin Cryer could emerge as a force with a few more opportunities and seems to be getting better as the year progresses. Beyond that, the left-handed duo of Rodriguez and Bukvich will be counted on in valuable situations along with spot relief by Jesse Simpson.
Platooning isn't necessarily a problem, but it becomes one when none of the players can cement an everyday role. Match-ups dictating the order prevent players from getting in a rhythm or having any security. Also, the early-game player swapping has depleted the bench on several occasions, thus causing a lack of pinch hitters during crucial late points. The problem lies in several players being similar. Kyle Mills and Fuller Smith are both JUCO transfers that probably need ample at-bats for a full adjustment to the SEC and to perfect timing. But, there are only so many plate appearances to go around. Giving one guy an extended opportunity may be what it takes to gain the most productivity by the end of the year.
Quality At-bats From 3-6
Zack Cozart, Cody Overbeck and Logan Power are all hitting at or just above .300, but a lack of clutch hitting has not only resulted in one-run losses but also kept the Rebels from extending leads to finish teams off. Run production would noticeably improve if any mixture of these three start a streak from here on out. With the Henry brothers burning up the bases, each plate appearance is a quality at-bat opportunity. Even if the averages don't rise, moving runners by avoiding pop-ups and strikeouts will also do the trick. Hitting the opposite way and successful bunting will do wonders for a small-ball team. One positive is Zach Miller. Miller got an opportunity in Minnesota and has provided a spark ever since. He now leads the team in batting average and features speed and quality spray hitting, but strikeouts are also a problem. The freshman has K'ed 25 times in 84 at-bats.
I have no doubt that Ole Miss wants to win every game and puts forth effort, but there has been an apparent lack of intensity on occasion. The Rebels have recently held team meetings to be on the same page and increase energy, and that is a good step. Ole Miss is 2-0 when in danger of being swept but 0-3 when having the chance to sweep. Bianco talks regularly about being able to handle a "hiccup weekend" but avoiding the "throw up weekend." Losing two of three is manageable while sweeps are detrimental. On the other side, the Rebels took the first two games at Auburn but supplied their most lethargic effort to date on Sunday in a 3-2 loss. It was the Tigers first SEC win in 18 tries. Then, in back to back weeks, Ole Miss could have distanced themselves from South Carolina and MSU but blew Sunday chances for momentous swings. The Rebels are a good team but more of a killer instinct will be needed in the coming weeks. Letdowns can't be afforded.
In short, Ole Miss is in good shape and only needs a few tweaks to right the ship, but the weaknesses become more visible at this time of the season. The program has elevated to the upper-echelon, which leaves little middle ground. It is the time where the year will be considered a success or a failure.
Commentary: Rebels' season - sweet and sour
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