As soon as Alabama had gotten past Ole Miss 19-6 last Sunday, Coach Mike Bianco said his ace closer would move to the Sunday starting role.
In SEC play, Aaron Barrett had gotten the game three start at Vanderbilt and not been effective. Same thing for Brett Bukvich against the Crimson Tide.
Three weeks into a 10-week SEC season and now it's Bittle's turn to try to win the game that so far has eluded the Rebels. Ole Miss won the Vandy and Bama series to stand 4-2 in SEC play. But game three went to the opposition both times.
Bittle is the Rebels' next best hope.
"Obviously we need a solid starter on Sunday," said Bittle, who hasn't started a game at Ole Miss since the championship game of the Oxford Regional vs. Sam Houston State in 2007. "I'm willing to give it a try."
Bittle has always said he prefers a reliever's role. Last season he was arguably the best closer in the country. He would likely have remained there had the Sunday start position not become open again.
The 6-foot-2, 198-pound right-hander hasn't quite had the stellar numbers he put together last season. He's made eight appearances so far with a 5.06 ERA and a 1-2 record with three saves in 10.2 innings pitched. He has 19 strikeouts but he's allowed 11 walks. The latter number is disturbing, although some of them are intentional.
Bittle struggled last Friday night in the closer role against Alabama. In a rare move, he was pulled before the game was over. Rory McKean actually finished things up for the Rebels on the mound.
Bittle was called on in the eighth with two outs and a man on third base. Three straight walks later and Alabama had trimmed the UM lead to 5-4. The next batter struck out and it was on to the bottom of the eighth. But the Rebs didn't add to their lead.
He got the leadoff batter in the top of the ninth to strike out, but things got away from Bittle at that point. A single, two walks, and a wild pitch scored a run to tie it. A double followed which scored two runs to give Alabama a 7-5 lead. Bama slugger Kent Matthes was intentionally walked to put runners on first and second.
That's when McKean was called on. He got two outs the next two at-bats and it was on to the bottom of the ninth to play catch-up. Bittle felt Tide closer Jimmy Nelson's pain as he allowed three runs on just one hit with two walks, and Ole Miss prevailed by a run at 8-7.
Bittle said in all the other games this year he's been at least close to the Bittle of last year.
"I just really had one bad night," he said. "I've been making quality pitches all year. It's just a matter of me going out there and making my pitches."
The senior admitted his limited innings so far have been a factor.
"I really haven't gotten to pitch that much," he said. "I went through times like this last yaer, but it was not as noticeable because I had a lot more innings under me."
Bittle said his approach will be the same whether starting or relieving.
"It's still 60 feet, six inches," he said. "I just have to go out there and get guys out."
As far as the number of innings he can pitch, he says it's wait and see.
"I'm not pressured under a pitch count or anything like that," he said. "I'm just going to go out there and go as far as I can. I don't know if I can go eight or nine (innings). I just want a quality start, and a quality start would be six innings or so."
Third-year sophomore RHP Jake Morgan stepping up and doing well this season is one factor that has allowed the move by Bittle. Morgan closed the Rebels' 5-2 win against Alabama in impressive fashion last Saturday, striking out six of seven batters faced.
Bittle said no matter the role, it's still all about winning.
"I'm just going out there to win as many innings as possible," he said. "It's the same as I always do, except I'm just doing it in the first inning."
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