Commentary: Confidence needed quickly

HOOVER, Ala. - The extra-inning loss on Saturday featured the sliver lining that the Rebels have heart and can regroup following an unsettling setback. However, dealing and rebounding after that 10-frame failure will now be Ole Miss' biggest challenge to date.

I watched the press conference following Vanderbilt's 7-6 win, and the Rebels had the look of a team that had just battled to the brink only to fall short. Zack Cozart and Justin Henry both displayed the devastation on their faces, while the usually perfectly composed Mike Bianco was tattered at the edges for perhaps the first time all season.

And who could blame them?

It was the end of a day where the No. 1 team in the country crushed the Red and Blue 13-1 during the afternoon and then proceeded to allow Ole Miss to taste victory before ripping away the canteen. Lopsided losses are the easy ones to get over. It is the one-run back-and-forth variety that will be left lingering more than a few hours after the final out.

The Rebels have endured 14 single-run setbacks and have persevered after nearly every opportunity where it is typical to question more than a few instances that could have turned a defeat into a victory.

Bianco referred to the baseball gods not being on Ole Miss' side and bad luck playing a role in his team's close collapses. That may be it, or the blame may need to be placed on managerial decisions and mistakes by the players themselves. It is likely a combination of both with a greater impact on the latter, but that discussion is for another time.

The skipper's immediate challenge is to pick the Rebels up off the mat and have them fighting again when regionals begin. It is a long season, and Saturday was the first time that I could visibly tell that Ole Miss was shaken by the season full of near misses. Fatigue is natural during a 60-plus game schedule, but past experiences can't leave doubt in the Rebels' minds when they take the field in less than a week.

The theme during the postgame was that "it" happened again, with "it" being any sort of negative instance that could be considered a catalyst for late-game heartbreak. That mindset is not surprising but nothing positive can come from it.

The Rebels are traveling back from Hoover on Sunday and will most likely begin postseason preparations on Monday. Fine tuning fundamentals will of course be necessary, but re-inventing the wheel isn't something that happens months into the season. The mental work this week will undoubtedly be more important than anything performed on Swayze Field.

Ole Miss needs to concentrate on its 37 wins and the fact that regional baseball is most likely headed to Oxford for the fourth straight year. Swagger is a great thing, and there is nothing that the Rebels need more at this juncture. Awaiting something bad to happen is the best way to assure that it will.

Playing tight or entertaining doubt will only result in something other than winning baseball. The Rebels are an established program and a quality team that can make a run. The first assignment is to develop selective amnesia, and the perfect example of that is pitcher Scott Bittle.

The Texas native has seen both sides of the spectrum as he collected seven saves in the nonconference before being branded by the fans during a freakishly bad run in SEC play.

At times, the soft-spoken Bittle could have been commended for simply continuing to run out there and do his best when asked. Individual criticism was often steered his way, but he never commented about it or broke down because of it.

And because of the past successes and failures, I rate Bittle's Saturday performance as the gutsiest thing I have seen all season. The sophomore allowed two first inning runs to Vandy but then buckled down and put up zeros for six straight frames. He gained confidence and made quality pitches the entire time.

Bittle couldn't have produced his solid outing if past flashbacks of failure were being allowed to creep in at any time. Heck, he had already blown two saves this season against the same Commodores. He told me that there was indeed pressure, but that he had confidence in his pitches and relied on his team.

That is a lesson that needs to be learned by all Rebels. The entire team has talent, and it is enough to carry them a long way but not if it is accompanied by thoughts of every occasion where things didn't go smoothly. There were mishaps in the regular season, but there were enough positives that the team will have an opportunity to fulfill its goals.

Confidence is contagious, and it is one thing that must be present in large amounts next week if the Rebels are to advance. The time is now for Ole Miss to get its swagger back and forget everything that coincides with failure.

That is the Rebels' challenge, and they have no choice but to accept it.

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