Cody Satterwhite, Logan Power, Brett Basham and others made plays in the final game Sunday, but the MVP was without question Fuller Smith. He made the diving catch to save the contest and executed a perfect bunt a half inning later that helped score the winning run. Those things are examples of what a team should get out of its captain, and the Rebels got just that with Fuller.
Also, the senior outfielder/DH was quick to keep the mindset positive after the second loss of the series. Fuller executed the balancing act of keeping everyone loose but also stressing the importance of getting one while in Tuscaloosa. He may struggle for a few games at the plate, but the Rebels need him in the order everyday because of his play, but also his attitude and energy. Winning is all that is on his mind.
Well, believe it or not, the weekend could have been worse. By salvaging the final game of the series, Ole Miss broke its five-game losing streak, and thanks to the rest of the Western teams' struggles, remains tied for the division lead with Alabama and Auburn at 4-5. To say the league is tight would be an understatement. If the SEC Tournament began today, Ole Miss could be the two seed, the eight seed or at home watching it on television. Yeah, winning a few is important to avoid that headache come the end of May.
Here is a little perspective on the recent struggles. If Ole Miss had lost both games Sunday, it would have been the first six-game losing streak and winless week for the Rebels since April 2004. That mid-season swoon four years ago didn't cost the Rebels a host slot, but Ole Miss swept three conference series and compiled 39 wins with two games remaining in the regular season. Needless to say, this version of the Diamond Rebs needs a hot streak to offset the struggles.
I am even more optimistic after the weekend that starting pitching will remain steady. Lance Lynn fought a rough couple innings Friday, but he is still one of the best pitchers in the country. Drew Pomeranz performed admirably in his first SEC start, and Cody Satterwhite made big pitch after big pitch in what was the most important game to date.
It was also a good weekend defensively, as Ole Miss made just one error during the three games. The outfielders made several nice plays, and Tim Ferguson, who accounted for the one mistake, redeemed himself with a tough backhand and throw across that ended the Rebels' win. Ferguson and Sean Stuyverson communicated and performed well together in the middle infield.
That leaves the offense, and there are still more questions than answers. I credit Mike Bianco for moving runners and attempting more small ball over the weekend than at any previous time this season, but the decisions rarely showed up on the scoreboard. Brett Basham executed a safety squeeze in the second inning of the third game against Alabama, but the catcher blocked the plate, and the runner was thrown out.
The Rebels had put two hits together with no outs and seemed poised to possibly run the starter early. Instead, the failed squeeze pepped up Alabama, and Ole Miss didn't score for seven more innings. Saying it may not have been the right move is being overly critical and probably not fair after the fact, but the feeling at the time was that the Rebels' aggressive plan was beginning to work for the first time in days. An out at home later, and Ole Miss' run-producing bats began to slumber again.
However, Bianco is tinkering with the line-up at every chance and doing anything to push runs across. You have to respect that, and his past record allows him the time to continue the adjustments without stakes burning at his doorstep. Baseball requires different combinations, and the right fit isn't always easy to find. If the squeeze is successful, then a run scores and Ole Miss could have two on with still no outs. Failures outweigh all else in baseball, so the important thing is to remain open and use all options.
It may be time to get a little uneasy, but with nearly 30 games remaining in the regular season, Bianco has time to decide on the correct pieces of the puzzle and figure out which way they best fit together. If the offensive production doesn't improve over the next ten games (nine at home), then it may be time to ease closer to the panic button.
Bianco mentioned this as a mistake in Sunday's postgame, and the second game may have been completely different without it. Pomeranz settled in and sat down 12 straight hitters to open play Sunday. The freshman had asked Bianco to throw even after the delay and said he felt better the second day than he did the first. But as Pomeranz was frustrating Alabama, his pitch count went over a career-high total. The left-hander threw 57 pitches Saturday and a total of more than 100 by the sixth inning Sunday. Ole Miss didn't send Scott Bittle to the bullpen until Pomeranz was beginning to struggle. It ended up being at least one batter too late. Pomeranz settled in and convinced me that he may be the answer now on Saturdays, but at that pitch count in his first start, having someone at least lightly tossing would have probably been a good idea.
Satterwhite stepped up and showed a lot of mental toughness on Sunday. With the Rebels needing a big outing, he allowed only two hits before leaving in the seventh inning with a popped blister. The junior's offspeed stuff was tumbling, and he located the fastball on the edges of the zone. Satterwhite did walk five hitters, but made the pitches when necessary and kept the game stable while waiting on the offense. It was the most electric he has been this season and couldn't have come at a better time.
Lynn was a little off with his curve ball in the middle innings, and it shows just how important the other pitches are besides the fastball. Alabama sat dead red and caught up with several Lynn mistakes for extra-base hits. The junior will undoubtedly bounce back, and didn't receive the loss Friday, but it shows that even the best hurlers need some help from the offense occasionally. This combination of Lynn, Pomeranz and Satterwhite should bode well for the Rebels in the coming weeks. Also, Nathan Baker can thrive in the midweek starting role.
This is becoming a recurring theme, but Basham is still playing excellent baseball behind the plate. The junior threw out one Friday and two more runners Sunday, and word has to be traveling the league not to test him. The pitchers are doing a better job of holding runners, and Basham has been on a tear with his arm for the past few weeks. Also, he deserves credit for blocking all of the balls bouncing to the plate. Scott Bittle skipped one by him Tuesday on a wild pitch that tied the Southern Miss game, but that has been the only thing to get by Basham lately. The tendency is to question Basham as to what happened when a ball sneaks by, but that is only a compliment because of his productivity behind the dish. Kyle Henson has one more game to finish his suspension, but the shoes for him to fill are mighty large right now defensively.
Speaking of Bittle, the weekend wasn't the best for the junior. His strikeout numbers remain Nintendo-like, but one bad pitch both Friday and Sunday dampened the stat fest. Matt Bentley hammered a Bittle pitch over the centerfield wall in game one, and a sharp single gave Alabama the lead in the continued game Sunday. Bittle did strikeout five of the six batters faced Friday, but the long ball is best remembered. Right now is an important time for the Texas native to have selective memory and bounce back. He can't let 2007 into his head, because Ole Miss needs him to remain reliable out of the pen. The ability is there, but this week is important for him mentally.
There is no clear answer to offensive struggles on Sundays, but the stats are quite eye-opening. Starting with the TCU series, Ole Miss has scored just five combined runs in 42.1 innings on Sundays. The team is persistent that it is strictly an anomaly, but the fast itself can't be comforting to pitchers closing out the weekend. My guess is that opposing pitchers are maybe less talented with the fastball and begin more counts with offspeed pitches that cause Ole Miss to start at-bats in a hole. As a team, the Rebels did work counts deeper over the past several days.
Zach Miller ripped two singles after having three straight games off at second base. Getting his offense back on track will allow the sophomore to regain his position. Miller has committed just one error this season, and it wasn't a fielding or throwing mistake. But his average around .150 for the past 15 games cost him a few days of play. Hopefully, Sunday is the start of Miller rebounding and getting back on track.
Justin Cryer's 2.1 innings of scoreless relief Sunday was a welcome sight, especially with Pomeranz being moved the rotation and Bittle enduring a rough weekend. Cryer filled up the zone and located from the first batter on. Something that hasn't happened occasionally in the past. Having him filling his potential is big at this point for the Rebels.
Fuller is the self-proclaimed "slowest leadoff man east of the Mississippi," but the bold lineup move worked well over the weekend. Smith handles the bat well with bunts and has a knack for squarely hitting the ball. It may not be conventional, but the Rebels gained productivity out of the first pot in the order, which has been absent much of the time. Jordan Henry continues to struggle, but Fuller may be the answer there until Henry can get back to being his 2007 version or at least something close.
Evan Button was scheduled to be in the lineup Friday, but the shortstop attempted a swing in the cages during pregame and couldn't play. Knowing Button's intensity, the injury has to be more frustrating for him than anyone, and Ole Miss needs his ability available. Ferguson has been more than serviceable, but the co-captain has experience and can help out in several ways and at several positions. He was beginning to break out when the injury occurred. However, there is no need to rush the recovery. Button used a roster spot this weekend, leaving David Kindred or Jeremy Travis in Oxford. It is a bad situation for everyone, but obviously the pain is substantial, and he is struggling to be at or near 100 percent.
Power scored the winning run with a single Sunday, and he also singled with a man on second to hopefully tie the game Friday, but a late jump by the runner held him at third. Power has been consistent and understands what is necessary at the time. If Overbeck and Matt Smith produce in the power portion of the order, Power can jumpstart the offense in the two hole. He is arguably the team's best baserunner and top hitter. Losing him in the four or five slot hurts, but the second batter has to provide quality at-bats. The offense's biggest problem has been inconsistency and ineffectiveness in the first two spots in the order.
S. Carolina 6-3
Ole Miss 4-5
Miss. State 2-7
Baseball Notes: UM Searching for Right Combo
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