Missing Matt

This time of year is different for college baseball players for a number of reasons. First of all, there are no classes. So there is a lot of free time and a lot of time to devote to the game of baseball.

Secondly, the games this week are Thursday night, Friday night, and Saturday afternoon. That schedule, which backs things up a day, has been used by the Southeastern Conference the last few years to give pitchers and teams an extra day to get ready for the SEC Tournament, which begins a week from today – Wednesday, May 26.

Thirdly, things have changed for the Ole Miss baseball team these past couple of weeks. They aren't winning as many games, even though they are 13-4 in their last 17 contests. They aren't hitting the baseball like they did during a 10-game win streak. They aren't scoring runs like they did during that string of successful outings when they rang up 100 plate-crossers, an average of 10 runs per contest.

No, things aren't quite as rosy for the Rebs (36-17, 16-11 SEC) as they were when they were doing things like beating Southern Mississippi at home and sweeping LSU and MSU back to back weekends. As well as things were going for a while, they've struggled lately.

Now they face an Auburn team (36-17, 17-10) as confident and playing as well as anybody in the SEC. The Tigers, who beat Jacksonville State 9-7 Tuesday night, arrive in Oxford as the surprise leader in the SEC West and with claiming a division title and hosting an NCAA Regional on their minds. That is uncharted territory for Auburn in many seasons. They haven't even been to the SEC tourney in Hoover since 2003.

Hunter Morris leads AU with 20 home runs

But, with 106 home runs as a team, they're going this year. On their way they pass through Oxford. The Rebels, tied with Arkansas for second in the West, know they'd better step it up or a season of promise will have turned sour all of a sudden.

The UM pitching has been decent enough lately, although free bases for the opposing teams have become the norm. In the first two games at Alabama last weekend, Rebel pitching walked 17 Crimson Tiders. When your starters, who walked 15 of them, are putting that type pressure on your defense, the offense had better come through.

But it hasn't lately. In their last seven games, they've scored 21 runs, or three per game.

So they went back to work Monday and Tuesday to try to correct some things and to hope Matt Snyder is back Thursday night. His last game to play was an 0-for-4 Friday night loss to Arkansas. He re-tweaked a shoulder in his first at-bat that night. He's missed the last six games. The Rebel offense has suffered.

"It's getting there," said Snyder, who first injured it when he slid into first base on a defensive play in the first game of the Tulane series in New Orleans. "We've been working on it a lot, a lot of rehab with (trainer) Tony (Barnett) and stuff. The pain has kind of gone away. I think I'll be ready for Thursday. That's what we're working on. If it doesn't, I'll just keep working on it and make sure to get there as soon as possible. That's what we're hoping."

So are his team and coach.

"My guess would be yes. But it would be a guess," said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco on whether Snyder will play Thursday night or not. "If we played today, I would say no. But today is Tuesday. He's feeling better each day. Yesterday he had a big smile and you can tell that he feels he's close. We're anxious to get him back, but we don't want to put him in there if he can't do it. But what we've realized from it is that every time he's come back from it, he seems to be OK. As soon as he can swing, he'll be back in there."

Snyder, who says he will have shoulder surgery immediately after the season, has missed 21 of the Rebels' 53 games. He's still the team's third leading hitter with a .324 average and has nine home runs, second on the team. His slugging percentage (.622) and his on-base percentage (.473) are tops on the team in both categories.

In other words, the Rebels need Matt Snyder back in the lineup.

"It's no secret," Bianco said. "Take the four-hole hitter out. It's a big difference. Take your Friday night starter and pull him out, it would make a big difference. But our issue is our four-hole guy is hurt. Some other teams have other issues. One of ours is our four-hole hasn't played 20 or so games. And not just the batting average and the home runs and the power, but he's another left-handed stick in there that offsets the right-handed pitching a little bit. He's kind of sandwiched between Matt Smith and Zach Miller. You look at our lineup without him, there are more right-handed options than left-handed options."

Tim Ferguson

But Tim Ferguson said the Rebels still have to hit better and score more runs, even if Matt Snyder isn't in there.

"Hitting's contagious, like they say. The opposite is when you're not hitting, it's kind of contagious, too," said the Rebels' centerfielder. "People kind of feel down and like we're never going to get a hit. We hit a ball hard right to someone, and that gets contagious. It's the negative part of baseball. When stuff's going your way, that's contagious. When stuff doesn't go your way, it's contagious. We've been falling into that kind of stuff, but we're getting out of that this weekend."

But he also admits Snyder helps when he's in there.

"We need (Matt) Snyder, and obviously whatever makes the team better, I'm ready to do," said Ferguson, hitting cleanup against Alabama last weekend. "I had the same mindset I had in the one hole. Guys like Miller, who filled in in the four hole, he's a lot more comfortable in the five hole. I'm actually more comfortable at the top of the lineup. Matt Snyder's more comfortable at the four. Matt Smith gets better pitches. Just all that kind of stuff. So whenever Snyder gets back and healthy, it's going to help the whole team confidence-wise, knowing we have that big bat behind Smitty and before Miller. So it definitely makes a difference."

The Rebels and Tigers play Thursday and Friday at 6:30 p.m. Saturday's finale begins at 4 p.m.

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