After Ole Miss' come from behind win against a solid Memphis baseball team at AutoZone Park on Tuesday, y'all should be feeling pretty good about this weekend's matchup against a struggling Tennessee team that has been on the road for quite some time. But, baseball is a funny game and things don't always work out the way they should.
The Rebels (15-14, 4-5 SEC) look to continue their winning ways this weekend against the Vols (12-13, 2-7 SEC) as the midway point of the season is upon us. The win on Tuesday saw the Rebel bats come alive and some bullpen arms that aren't exactly household names stepped up to help in closing out the win. These two things are paramount if Mike Bianco's boys want to find themselves in a regional come June.
Most baseball pundits believe that the Rebel's magic number is 30 wins in order to make the tourney. Now, if Ole Miss finds some magic and gets hot, like a lot of baseball teams do, then this conversation is all for naught. But, until that happens, every win matters and this weekend poses an opportunity for Ole Miss to grab three.
Here are three things that will need to be answered in order for the Rebels to get on a run and improve their tournament resume.
1. Is Tate Blackman the new DH?
After Will Golsan played 2B in Fayetteville, Bianco apparently liked what he saw and kept him there on Tuesday in Memphis. It's going to be really hard to keep him out of the lineup after he collected three hits against the Tigers and is leading the team with a .314 average. As far as Tater Salad goes, the designated hitter spot might not be the worst thing for him.
A lot of times freshmen can go through stints when the college game gets to them and they get a tad bit overwhelmed. After going on a tear in March, Blackman began to struggle and at times looked frustrated at the plate. With baseball being such a mental battle, this wasn't the best thing to happen to someone who was finally coming around and starting to flourish offensively.
In my opinion, the lineup will always be fluid for Bianco's club, but for now this is good for Blackman. This will keep the game simple for the Preseason SEC Freshman of the Year. Bianco and hitting coach Mike Clement are making it a one-sided battle for Tate and having him only focus on hitting and not worrying about playing defense for now. So far so good.
2. Can the Rebels crack Marks Code?
The Vols' Bret Marks has been one of the more impressive arms during this young season. The senior from Roswell, Ga. is top 10 in the SEC in four major categories (ERA, opponent's batting average, innings pitched and strikeouts) and also sports a very studious look.
Opponents are barely hitting over .150 against him and he recently took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against No. 3 Florida. Look for Marks to pound the strike zone early and often with his low-90s fastball in order to get ahead in the count and set up his out pitch, the splitter.
If the Rebels want to break Marks Code, they will need to keep the same approach that gave them success on Saturday in Fayetteville and Tuesday in Memphis: be aggressive and attack. That approach helped the Rebs go 6-for-17 with runners in scoring position against Memphis and 7-for-15 with two outs. Being aggressive at the plate bodes well against a guy like Marks, who can be devastating when he's ahead in the count.
3. Should Ole Miss flip the weekend rotation?
Michael Borkey and I discussed this on this week's podcast and at this point, why the hell not? Sunday has been a disaster all season as we've seen the squad drop four straight Sunday contests due to inconsistent outings from Sam Smith and Will Stokes. I believe it's broken, so it needs to be fixed.
The logical thing would be to move Christian Trent back to Saturday, as he was so good there last season (9-0, 2.05 ERA) and Brady Bramlett to Sunday due to the fact that he would more than likely be favored to win a head-to-head matchup against anyone's Sunday starter in the SEC. Friday could be used in two ways: a way to give a lot of arms work by utilizing the platoon strategy or giving various folks auditions to earn the third spot in the rotation.
As I alluded to above, baseball is such a mental struggle, the Rebels need anything positive they can get in the series finales from here on out. Losing Friday and then winning the remaining two games would not be the worst thing by any stretch. Friday could be a way for a guy like Stokes to get used to the limelight and see if he will sink or swim. He's shown flashes of brilliance at times, but then turned around and looked like the true freshman he is. The Rebels swept the Vols in their last meeting in 2013, if they want to repeat that, these pitching answers need to be addressed yesterday.
BONUS: ARE YOU READY FOR FRIDAY FIREWORKS?!