This could have been the weekend that killed Ole Miss' season. Backed against the wall after consecutive SEC series losses, this club was in desperate straits. The weekend rotation was coming apart, the offense was abysmal and all signs of confidence seemed to be gone.
Which is why sweeping Arkansas over the weekend is such a damn big deal. Mike Bianco's rotation shakeup seems to have stabilized things on the mound and the offense, which had been hot garbage over the last couple of weeks, woke up against an admittedly struggling Hogs staff. Those two things combined to give the Rebs firm command of every game, though some surprisingly shaky bullpen play made things interesting in the final two games.
Most importantly, Ole Miss baseball was finally fun to watch again. Big leads, lots of runs, terrible dancing, Karate Kid celebrations and a hex-giving Baseball Cat made this a wildly entertaining series. Let's run through the highlights and major takeaways.
Scores and highlights
Friday: Ole Miss 7, Arkansas 3 (box score)
Saturday: Ole Miss 14, Arkansas 9 (box score)
Sunday: Ole Miss 8, Arkansas 7 (box score)
4 big takeaways
1. The bats are back... for now.
After the offensive impotency of the South Carolina and State series, I'm sure it felt good to pile up 29 runs on the Hogs. Including last Sunday's win over State and the midweek Southern Miss contest, Ole Miss is hitting .343 over its last five games. Errol Robinson has had multiple hits in all five of those games, raising his average to .246. Henri Lartigue stayed red hot with a 6-for-10 weekend. On Saturday, freshman Ryan Olenek not only went 3-for-4 with two RBI, but had two spectacular defensive plays and the worst/best double celebration of the season.
TFW you sneak one inside the 3rd base line pic.twitter.com/zMWYN1wVOD— Jeff Gray (@Jeff_GraySBN) April 10, 2016
The qualifier, of course, is that this has all come against bad pitching. State's Sunday arms have struggled all season (though they held No. 1 Florida to just one run in this past weekend's series clincher), USM's midweek guy has an ERA over 7 and the Arkansas staff is a complete wreck. The Hogs rank dead last in team ERA among SEC teams, which prompted skipper Dave van Horn to make his own rotation shakeup coming into the weekend. Both the Friday and Saturday pitchers Ole Miss faced were making their first starts of the season.
In other words, let's not call it an offensive renaissance just yet.
2. The pitching shakeup worked.
Brady Bramlett was lights out in his typical Friday night role (three hits over 7.0 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts, tying his career high), but the real story was David Parkinson on Saturday. With Chad Smith struggling* as the No. 2 starter, Bianco swapped him out with Parkinson, a sophomore making his first career D1 start. The result was five hits and just one earned run over 5.1 innings, exactly what Bianco needed. Parkinson looks like a guy who's going to consistently carry into the later innings, and I expect his stamina will only increase as he adjusts to the new role.
Big leads in the first two games allowed Bianco to hold closer Wyatt Short over for a Sunday start. Short looked a bit uncomfortable in the new role, allowing eight baserunners in his 4.1 innings, though he limited the damage to two earned runs. I have no doubt he'll get stronger in that role over time, but problems in the bullpen might prevent Bianco from making it a full-time move. More on that in a minute.
*Smith doesn't look like a great relief pitcher either. He gave up a pair of runs during a 1.2-inning bullpen outing on Sunday.
3. The Baseball Cat almost spoiled things on Saturday.
The Rebs tacked on four more runs in the two innings after Parkinson left the game, giving them an 8-1 lead in the top of the eighth. That's when this happened:
CAT ON THE FIELD pic.twitter.com/m2vHa9ZUYY— Jeff Gray (@Jeff_GraySBN) April 10, 2016
The cat, scared but safe, was eventually carried off the field... but not before leaving a vengeful curse. Two pitches later, Kyle Watson dropped a gimme pop fly and the Razorbacks went on to score eight runs in the eighth and ninth. Fortunately the curse affected the Hogs defense as well—they gave up six runs in the bottom of the eighth to keep things from getting too sketchy for Mike Bianco.
Cat curses aside, it was a tough weekend for a Rebel bullpen that had been fantastic up til now. Relievers gave up a combined 15 runs over the three games, including bad outings from Will Stokes (four earned runs on Saturday) and Andy Pagnozzi (two earned runs on Sunday). If that trend continues, it's going to be very hard to keep Wyatt Short as a long-term Sunday starter. Stokes was much better in his other two outings (he pitched in all three games), but he's not the same type of stopper Short is, and it seems unlikely that Bianco is going to routinely make it through the first two games without needing his best closer. If the weekend happens to fall that way and Short is available, great, but Bianco needs to find an alternate he feels comfortable with to take the mound on Game 3s.
But back to the Baseball Cat:
4. Kung Fitz Panda is a thing.
So we at the Cup have taken to calling pinch hitter Michael Fitzsimmons -- a freshman who's leading the team with a .357 average -- Kung Fitz Panda. I'm not sure why we call him that, we just do.
Apparently he's digging the nickname. He did this move twice over the weekend after hitting a double:
KUNG FITZ PANDA. So yea, this is a thing pic.twitter.com/byENyOn7le— Jeff Gray (@Jeff_GraySBN) April 10, 2016
Then there's this:
As a side note @Michael_Sean1 has changed his walk-up song to Panda by Desiigner.— RebelWatch Ole Miss (@Rebel_Watch) April 10, 2016
No idea if that's true, but I really hope it is.
Around the SEC
- No. 6 Mississippi State took two of three from No. 1 Florida
- No. 16 LSU took two of three from No. 3 Vandy
- No. 5 A&M swept Georgia
- No. 9 South Carolina swept Tennessee
- No. 23 Kentucky took two of three from Bama
- Mizzou took two of three from Auburn
Wednesday: vs. Southern Miss in Oxford
Friday-Sunday: at Bama in Tuscaloosa