Admit it, you fully expected the Southern Miss loss on Tuesday. It's ok, I did, too. That place is cursed and does not like Mike Bianco at all. It was their sixth setback in a row to the Mustard Buzzards from Hattiesburg and they've won once in their last 10 meetings. And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the Ole Miss Rebels (16-17, 5-7 SEC) now have to travel to Nashville to face the Vanderbilt Commodores (27-7, 10-2 SEC).
Despite the inconsistency, the positives to look at for Ole Miss baseball is the RPI is still top 50 and the strength of schedule is still the toughest in the country according to WarrenNolan.com. Also, the margin of defeat is very small (-0.4 runs/game) which is showing you that the pitching is doing its job, but the bats have been lacking this season. Coming into this weekend's series against Vandy (No. 8 RPI), the Rebels are 3-7 in their last 10 games, 9-9 against the top 50 in the RPI.
In order for the Rebels to gain some momentum, get to the magic number of 30 and make the tournament, they will need to continue to pitch it as well they have on the weekend and the bats are going to have to find some mojo. Despite most of the roster being inexperienced, Mike Bianco has gotten some nice production from his true freshman and former role players that have been thrust into the starting lineup.
Now, let's take a look at three questions heading into this weekend's tussle with the Dores that will impact the series starting tonight.
1. HEY WE HAVE A THIRD STARTER... now what?
The torch has been passed. No more Sunday Sizzle. The time is now for freshman Will Stokes as he was named by Mike Bianco as the third starter for this weekend's series in the Music City. The Meridian, Miss. native has shown flashes of some really good stuff this season as he got a save earlier this year against a really, really, really good LSU team, turned in three straight quality starts and collected two other saves.
For now, the Rebels will need to continue to pump up Mr. Stokes and try and give him some run support to get a win in a series finale (Rebels has lost five straight weekend finales). His fastball has some life, enabling him to sit comfortably in the 90-93 mph range and upper 80s in the later innings. He will need to continue to work on a third pitch to cement himself in the weekend rotation, but his slider is a solid second pitch for him and it will only get better.
If anything, this move by Bianco could possibly influx some confidence not only in Stokes, but also with the rest of the team. There's no better time than now to get the ball rolling against the reigning national champions.
2. How do the Rebs cut down on the strikeouts?
What a question for THIS weekend. The Dores will be trotting out some of the best arms on the bump that the Rebs will see this season. The three-headed monster of Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler and Jordan Sheffield have struck out 129 batters in 118 innings and show no signs of slowing down. But, the Rebs control everything at the plate.
For the Rebels to cut down on the strikeouts, they're going to have to be more aggressive earlier in the count, especially against Vanderbilt. It seems to be somewhat of a trend this season, but in my eyes, the Rebels have fallen behind in the count quite often. With the obvious struggles at the plate, confidence needs to be at an all-time high.
This weekend, Fulmer, Buehler and Sheffield will all be sitting 92-98 mph easy and will be pumping the strikezone early and often. Therefore, you know that they're more than likely going to be throwing a lot of good pitches to hit. Under the tutelage of pitching coach Scott Brown, Vandy's pitchers waste little time and attack you early in the count with power fastballs. When someone is throwing that hard, you just have to see it and hit it and with solid contact, the ball is gonna jump.
Earlier this season, I joked with some friends that the Rebels have a chance to break the all-time team strikeout record that is held by the 1984 Florida State Seminoles (520 in 84 games). Right now, Ole Miss is sitting at 262 through 33 games. With at least 23 games left and the potential for more in Hoover and postseason play, this could be something to painfully keep an eye on. Ironically enough, Vanderbilt has struck out 284 times, most in the SEC. But, when you're the defending national champs and hitting .309 as a team, people tend to overlook that.
3. Can Ole Miss get hot and go on a run?
H-I-T. It's that simple. As I mentioned above, the pitching is there. The bullpen has been solid. The defense has been serviceable. You just have to score runs. Pure and simple. Guys like Sikes Orvis, Kyle Watson and Tate Blackman are going to have to be a bigger part of the offense in order for the lineup to be dangerous from top to bottom.
Despite hitting at a .281 clip, J.B. Woodman has struggled this season as he has struck out 30 times already (only had 34 Ks last year). The Carpenter has to utilize his speed and put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense. Along with Woodman, Orvis has to be the big bopper he was last year and put fear in the hearts of pitchers. The stupid Canadian shift that has been utilized against Mr. WHISKEYANDMEAT has dragged his average down to an underwhelming .232 but, he has the ability to hit the ball the other way around the shift. He will probably have to do this for the remainder of the season as most people are playing him to pull and aren't afraid to pitch to him due to the protection the rest of the lineup fails to provide.
More hitting will also produce more baserunners for Mike Clement's offense. This is where I think Ole Miss can really dictate the pace and type of game that they play. Guys like Cameron Dishon (12 SB), Watson (9 SB), Woodman (3 SB) and Will Golsan (3 SB) have capable speed and they need to put pressure on the pitchers and catchers and try and swipe more bases. Throwing in some hit and runs can not only put pressure on the defense, but also take the pressure off the Rebel hitters and make it simple for them to just hit the ball on the ground to the right side or simply swing through a pitch to protect the runner.