Bullpen ready for postseason play

HOOVER, Ala. - The bullpenners are excited and ready to go. Postseason will do that to you.

More games mean more innings. Of course, all of them hope Ole Miss plays just four games this weekend, three next weekend, and two the next weekend. Win all nine without a setback and a second straight SEC tourney crown and a trip to Omaha is theirs.

The bullpen has been one of the reasons Ole Miss has lost some games this season. It's also been a reason the Rebels have won some close ones late. The list is longer on the former than the latter; certainly the ones most remembered.

It all started back in Nashville the first SEC weekend of the season. The Friday night game was lost in the 10th when Vandy broke a tie with a run-scoring single by Jonathan White that got Pedro Alvarez home from second. After winning 6-1 on Saturday, the Rebels then found themselves in a similar situation as Friday night on Sunday and again didn't finish as Vandy scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth for a 7-6 win.

The Commodores were ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time and have played this season as well as any team in the country, winning the SEC with a strong 22-8 record. Even back then it was clear the Commodores were among the best teams in baseball.

Who could have guessed then there would be a trend of games like those two over the next several weeks?

You won't win them all, but the Rebels lost more than their fair share. Had they won just a couple of the ones that got away and a regional host site for Oxford would be locked up already. In addition to the two setbacks in Nashville, there were losses like the Friday night contest with Alabama here, the Friday night game at LSU, the first two games at Tennessee and the second game at Arkansas.

The scenarios varied. Some were when a pitcher was off a bit; others when the strike zone tightened up at the end. Some were walks or hit batsmen that came back to haunt; others when teams simply hit the ball and scored runs.

Starter Will Kline's word for putting things behind him should be used by the Rebel bullpen staff. "Flush it," Kline says of the past.

That's one approach the Rebel relievers and closers take with them into postseason play which begins here tonight against Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament, where the Rebels are defending champions.

Nobody should "flush it" more than hard-luck pitcher Scott Bittle. So effective early in the season, the sophomore righty had as a tough a time as any reliever this season.

But he came back to the ballpark everyday ready to pitch again. He says little about it all but says there was one aspect that was the worst part.

"Looking my teammates in the face," Bittle said. "It's hard to lose a game when everybody's working together and you lose in that fashion."

Bittle appreciates the support head coach Mike Bianco has continued to show in him.

"He sat me down and said he has a lot of confidence in me," Bittle said. "He told me just to control what I can and that's all I can do."

Flush it, in other words.

Bittle says he's looking forward to postseason.

"We obviously want the starters to go as long as they can go," he said. "When they run out of steam, we want to be there to pick them up."

He's joined by other relievers who are also ready for postseason play and the innings that come with it.

"We all know we haven't played up to the best of our abilities," said Justin Cryer of the team as a whole. "Everyone in the conference knows we are capable of winning everything. We just have to put it all together now."

Cryer says he believes he's as ready as he's been in a long time as postseason play begins.

"I'm gaining a lot more confidence," said the redshirt freshman right-hander. "I'm pitching almost every weekend now. Early in the year I was working to get my confidence back. Now I'm just out there working hard and trying to throw strikes."

Cryer likes the fact that there are more innings now and that the staff seems to be rounding into its best form yet. He hasn't pitched in collegiate postseason and he's ready.

"I really look forward to that," said the third-year Rebel who redshirted his first season and then recovered from Tommy John surgery last season. "This is my first experience to be with the team in the postseason. It's an opportunity for me and other guys to be ready to go and help out."

Jesse Simpson said he loves this time of year.

"It's a great time of the season," said the sophomore right-hander. "We know there are more chances for us to get into the games. You know there's a good chance you'll be needed, so that makes it even more exciting."

Simpson says every weekend now it could be two losses and done. The relievers, some of them not used all that often, are a big part of making sure that doesn't happen.

"This is when those who haven't pitched a lot can make a name for themselves, come out of the bullpen, do really well, and help the team win," he said.

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