Talking Baseball

I'm convinced there is no end of the season anymore in any sport.

I sat down for an hour and talked to Mike Bianco for a season-ending story, like every year. I know you're expecting a definitive, all-encompassing wrap-up of the just completed year.

And I'll be able to give you some of that. But this thing is fluid, as folks like to call never-ending, always-changing situations. Sports seasons just don't end anymore.

Yes, the Rebels were eliminated from the Charlottesville Regional last Sunday at the hands of St. John's. When the final out was recorded, 36 runs had crossed the plate that day, and the Rebels only had 16 of them. Their final record of 39-24 was in the books, and the Red Storm faced Virginia for the right to move on to a Super Regional.

St. John's won the matchup Sunday night, but the Cavaliers won Monday night to host Oklahoma this weekend.

The Rebels, meanwhile, came home to do several things – watch with teammate Drew Pomeranz as he became the highest Ole Miss baseball player drafted in history, the fifth pick by the Cleveland Indians.

Then they watched the following two days as the draft continued, and several heard their names called. Some were left to ponder their futures. Others headed to summer ball or summer school or just some rest after a long school year.

Bianco and staff kept right on working. The head coach had exit interviews with all players. The assistants were doing everything from keeping up with the draft and taking calls from those drafted to planning trips to watch future Rebels and potential Rebels in summer baseball at tournaments near and far.

"It's been a busy few days," said the UM head coach who just completed year ten in Oxford. "It's always that way, especially the first week after the season is over."

The season, the actual one with games, was over June 6. That's earlier than Ole Miss has gotten used to. Only once since 2004 has a season ended this soon, and that was 2008 when the last out was recorded in the Coral Gables, Fla., Regional and there was no Super Regional for the Rebs.

A team with 39 wins is normally considered a success. Bianco's teams have won that many games or more eight times in ten seasons. Only his second and third teams (37 in 2002 and 35 in 2003) failed to win as many as 39 times.

But numbers are just that. Numbers. They are significant. But it's about winning and advancing. Playing in Regionals and Super Regionals. Hosting them. Playing in the College World Series.

The Rebels didn't host any of those this season and didn't advance to Omaha. The main reason? Not enough depth. Not enough talent. The No. 1 downfall arguably was pitching depth, followed closely by hitting inconsistencies. You might reverse those, but usually success, or the lack of it, starts on the mound.

So the Rebels were a little thinner this year than most recent seasons. The roster numbers, by NCAA rule, are smaller. Starting last season there could only be 35. Bianco admitted in the preseason press conference back in February that the 2009 Rebels weren't affected much at all by the limitations placed on teams by the governing body.

Not so in 2010. He admitted the Rebels felt it this time around. Starting with David Renfroe signing with the Red Sox to losing closer Jake Morgan to Tommy John surgery in the fall, along with reliever Jon Andy Scott to the same situation, to the dismissal of newcomers Evan Frazar and Zach Lowery, the Rebels were in a battle with the numbers' game in 2010. Bianco admits the season was a struggle in many ways, starting with that.

"That's one of the things I did a poor job with this year," he said. "It's only the second year with the 35-man. The NCAA allowed you to go to 27 people dressed out in the NCAA Tournament, and the SEC followed suit and allowed us to bring 27 to the SEC Tournament (as opposed to 25 in the past).

UM has made 9 NCAAs in 10 seasons under Bianco

"Our 26th and 27th guys were Jake Morgan and Blair Wright," he said, both pitchers recovering from surgeries and unable to help. "We had nobody else to bring. That's all we had. We could have taken some redshirt guys, but we weren't going to break their redshirt. So we brought two guys that had been a part of the program that we thought would be good leaders on the bench. That shows you the lack of depth on this team and where we were."

He expounds on that point a bit.

"You watched us take infield. We were the only team in the conference when we take infield we had one third baseman, one shortstop, and one second baseman. Pretty thin.

"Three pitchers that have arm surgery. Lose two guys (dismissed from team). Lose the No. 1 recruit (David Renfroe) the day before deadline."

He admits some downfalls.

"Even with that, I don't think we did a good job. Those are good excuses, and that's part of the equation. And you can't really plan for some of that. But we were too short to begin with. When you did that, it really magnified that we didn't handle that very well.

"I didn't do a good enough job," he said.

And so those who want him to take credit, or blame, for the team falling short this season, he did. But there is a plan for moving ahead, and it's one the Rebel program became successful with the first several years Bianco was its leader.

"It's all recruiting, and it's all about figuring it out," he said. "It's something we just have to do a better job at. Again, you're going to have injuries and those things are going to happen. But you can't be that short-handed and expect to compete in the No. 1 baseball conference in the country. And I don't mean that as a total excuse, because I don't know that it would have actually changed who played third base or who played center field or whatever. But it's certainly a factor and puts a strain on things."

Bianco likes how things have gone in recruiting this spring and into this summer. And much of that can be attributed to his recruiting coordinator, Carl Lafferty, his first team captain at Ole Miss when the Pine Bluff, Ark., native was a senior catcher, and the man who was thrust into his current role when the coaching staff changes were made six months ago – right in the middle of the school year.

"The recruiting end of it has been really busy the last few days," Bianco said, mainly speaking of those Rebs who were drafted. "Trying to hold onto recruits. The whole cycle of recruiting is just mind-boggling. It takes somebody that's really passionate and somebody that's tireless. (Carl) seems to really enjoy it. You can see the excitement. He reminds me a lot of Dan McDonnell. He's excited when he's had a good conversation with somebody. He has that bounce that you have to have and great rapport with kids and families and so on."

Bianco continues talking about the season just completed, when the Rebels were 16-14 in the SEC but were 16-9 before losing their last five games and any shot at league titles or NCAA tourney hosting.

"Depth wasn't the only reason we didn't have the success we wanted," he said. "It was a factor but not the only thing. We didn't play well. We talk about being inconsistent, but at the end of the day, it was about not playing well. At times during the year, I think we played well. And we were certainly capable with the first two guys (Pomeranz, Aaron Barrett) on the mound.

"And defensively I thought we were pretty solid throughout the year and played maybe as well as we ever have here. I think we tied for the second-best defensive team we've had at .974 fielding percentage. Defensively we played very solid.

"And that's without the depth. Moving guys Like (Miles) Hamblin from behind the plate and leaving him at first base for an extended period of time. And then putting him behind the plate at the end of the year and he hadn't caught in a while. Not having your original first baseman (Matt Snyder) there (most of the season). Moving (Matt) Smith back and forth from the outfield. Kinda rotating outfielders with (David) Phillips and (Tanner) Mathis and (Taylor) Hashman. Even with all that, defensively I thought we were about as solid as you can be."

Bianco: "We didn't play well."

But defense is only one aspect of the game.

"The two (other) factors were on the mound and at the plate," Bianco said. "After the two guys (Pomeranz, Barrett) and (Brett) Huber, nobody really pitched well. At times (others) pitched well or had a good outing. But we didn't have enough from the pitching staff when you look at the numbers statistically to win games. From a hitting standpoint, a similar thing. We weren't good enough offensively. When you put those two things together, it's not a good mix. In some regards, depending on how you want to look at it, we could be fortunate the last weekend to have had a shot to win the West."

But they didn't win it. And in the end, they really didn't come close. Auburn buried the Rebels on their own field the final three games of the regular season, the first sweep suffered at home by an Ole Miss baseball team in seven seasons. Not since 2003, Bianco's third year here, had any team taken three games from the Rebels in Oxford.

"There's such a fine line, especially in this league, of being good and not being good," said Bianco, who should know, having been a part of it half his life as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. "We probably fell right on the line. The truth of the matter is, one more bad week or two and we would have really struggled. But one more (good) week and we could have been the Western Division champs.

"The kids played as hard as they could. The way we performed was disappointing, because at the end we had a shot. We just needed to be more consistent."

And so they move on from here. He will meet with his assistants in the near future to discuss things. They've all been with the program for multiple seasons but in their current roles for only half a year.

"We're still evaluating and I haven't met with the coaches," Bianco said. "So I can speak generally, but I don't want to speak too much in depth. It was a tough year. Offensively and on the mound we weren't as good as we should be. I think that's for a lot of reasons. I think some guys had some tough years. But our job is also to coach them and to get them to play better. I think it's a combination of all of that.

"Ultimately as a coach, and especially as the head coach, to me it's our fault," he continued. "Regardless if you want to blame anybody, you blame me. I'm the one that asked the players to come here. I'm the one that asked the coaches to be here. So we have to do better collectively as a staff. I have to do better.

"And we will. There's no doubt."

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