Then and Now

Exactly a month ago, on March 3, Ole Miss baseball fans waited anxiously for that week's polls to be released. The Rebels were sitting at 8-0 and had a realistic shot at being named the top team in the country. Baseball America placed Ole Miss at No. 2, and that "snub" was the most adversity the team had faced thus far.

My what difference a month makes.

The Rebels upended Southern Miss a day later to move to 9-0, but since then, a free fall has occurred in the polls and the stat sheet. The consensus top-five rankings have been replaced by a solitary 23 spot in one of the four major polls. If the SEC Tournament began today, Ole Miss would have to survive a tiebreaker to even be a participant.

A recent five-game losing streak has since been replaced by back-to-back wins, but the one-run victories over Alabama and Memphis have done little to settle the discontent entering arguably the most important stretch of the season. Vanderbilt and LSU invade Oxford during the next two weeks, with South Alabama visiting in a two-game set sandwiched in between.

A successful homestand can reinvigorate the team (and the fan base) and let the ball begin to roll back in the right direction. Confidence and momentum are two intangibles Ole Miss needs to soon seize.

Since the victory over the Golden Eagles, the Rebels are 8-11 overall and 4-5 after the first three SEC weekends. Disregard the 9-0 start, and Ole Miss is a team searching for an identity.

Let's examine the three phases in order from sweet to sour. The Rebels have pieced together a couple wins and have time to bounce back without critical damage, but the time is now to perform like expectations suggest possible.

Pitching

Beginning count from the first loss against Arkansas State, Ole Miss is sporting a team ERA of 4.02. That is above the overall ERA of 3.50, but four runs per game is more than serviceable in college baseball. Most teams would be ecstatic with that statistic. Also, opponents are hitting just .265 during this stretch. As I have written before, the limited pitching problems are magnified because of inconsistencies in other areas. Mistakes have come at inopportune times, but any time is inopportune when scoring is an issue. For now, the rotation is stable with Lance Lynn, Drew Pomeranz and Cody Satterwhite. And the bullpen is anchored by three pitchers with less than two ERAs – Scott Bittle, Justin Cryer and Rory McKean. Nathan Baker illustrated last how effective he can be during midweek action with 4.2 scoreless innings. So, of course things could be better, but the pitching is more than good enough to win.

Defense

Ole Miss has committed 32 errors this season, and 23 of those have come in the past 19 games. A little higher but not an exponential difference from the one per game clip during the season-opening winning streak. Also, optimism is present, as the Rebels have made just one mistake during the last four games combined, an error by Tim Ferguson that didn't lead to run Sunday versus Alabama. The game Wednesday against Memphis was won with defense as much as anything else. Brett Basham, Zach Miller and the outfield made play after play to keep the game manageable. With Matt Smith and Ferguson gaining experience, the overall defense should continue to improve. Miller and Cody Overbeck have been pleasant surprises with .989 and .962 fielding percentages respectively. Basham remains one of if not the best backstop in the SEC. Ole Miss likely loses to the Tigers if Basham doesn't make a catch and tag at home and also every throw needed. The junior is carrying a .993 fielding percentage.

Offense

Or should we say lack there of? The double-digit whitewashings and innings of batting around haven't surfaced in some time. Making scoring opportunities and producing when present are the two main reasons for the disappointing skid. Ponder these numbers compiled since Ole Miss' initial defeat: team batting average – .263, team on-base - .344, stolen bases – 12-15, walks – 68, strikeouts – 131, men left on base – 159, home runs – 13 (14 during the winning streak), doubles – 28.

The two most staggering category is batting average The .263 average is 34 points below the overall, not the 9-0 start average but with these numbers included. And the problems lie in a certain part of the order as well. Until recently, Jordan Henry batted leadoff, but the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year has hit just .172 during the past 19 games. Michael Hubbard and Miller have spent the most time in the two-hole, and they are batting .176 and .200 respectively in that time.

Only three hitters are over .300 since the first loss – Overbeck (.313), Logan Power (.343), Basham (.322). Two of those are playing well in the middle of the order, but that fact only further emphasizes that the table isn't being set. Due to this, nobody can blame Mike Bianco for shaking things up with Ferguson, Fuller Smith and others in those opening slots.

The leaving men on base stat averages out to 8.3 per game, and this corresponds with the nearly seven strikeouts per game. The Rebels K'ed just four times per game during the 9-0 start. Also, the 12 steals during the past 19 games trail the 15 from the first nine contests.

These are a lot of stats to digest, but the main idea is that Ole Miss can regain its offensive prowess by getting quality at-bats from the first two spots in the order. Miller may be on his way up, as he has multiple hits in back-to-back games. The middle is performing adequately, and Basham gives an extra spark at the bottom. Putting the ball in play and limiting the free swinging would hopefully decrease strikeouts and be more efficient at moving runners. Henry has struggled, but it is best to find a way to let him continue to work out of it. His presence helps in many different categories because of his speed. Also, Jeremy Travis has earned a travel spot at this point, if just off the bench.

In closing, working counts and applying pressure are two keys for the next few weeks. Hitting is contagious, and major offensive attack systems can definitely create pressure but only if used by selective batters. Being disciplined is the biggest problem for the offense currently.

The two straight wins have maybe instilled some confidence in the team and can hopefully return the Rebels to something similar to the 9-0 start. The problems are numerous, but they can begin to be corrected by the intangibles – confidence and momentum.

Finding the best way to create those is now the question.

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