Ole Miss (25-7, 6-6 SEC) heads into the week riding a five-game winning streak, having finally started to pitch, hit and field like the consensus top-15 team they are. One of those five Ws came last Tuesday against Southern Miss in Pearl. On Wednesday, the Rebs turn around and play them again in Oxford.
Surprisingly enough, this is actually a ranked showdown. Following a series sweep of Middle Tennessee, USM broke into the composite top 25 for the first time this season, sneaking in at No. 25 (Ole Miss rode its sweep of Arkansas up to No. 11). Southern Miss is 25-8 overall and 11-1 in conference. Don't scoff at Conference USA, either -- with USM, Florida Atlantic and Rice all looking like tournament teams, the conference ranks third in RPI behind the SEC and ACC. Southern Miss' RPI, by the way, is all the way up at No. 15.
USM is hitting the ball at record pace (they're .322 as a team with four everyday players batting over .350), though James McArthur and the Rebel bullpen was able to limit them to two runs on eight hits last week.
The Ole Miss offense's recent hot streak has pushed its team average to .280. That's still only good for 11th in the conference, but some of the big names are beginning to contribute regularly. We've mentioned before that guys like Woodman, Blackman, Bortles and Robinson need to be consistent for this team to have success and that's started to happen. The Diamondbearz are riding a five-game winning streak and have accumulated double digit hits in every game.
2 big questions for the midweek
1. Is James McArthur making an audition for a weekend role?
McArthur had the best outing of his young career last week against USM, allowing four hits and no runs over a career-long six innings. Ever since those troubling outings against Arkansas State and Memphis (5.1 IP, 9 H, 7 ER combined), Big Tex has has delivered four straight quality starts (21 IP, 19 H, 5 ER, 23 K combined). Once up above 15.00, his ERA has decreased to 4.28.
With the Sunday starting role unsolved, should Mike Bianco think about giving McArthur a shot? The Wyatt Short experiment didn't go all that bad last weekend (he scattered six hits and allowed two earned runs over 4.1 IP) but the Rebs missed him in the bullpen.
I think we should see how McArthur handles a few more midweek opponents before bumping him up to face a conference foe, but it's an option Bianco should keep in mind if Ole Miss continues to struggle on Sunday.
2. Has Errol Robinson turned a corner offensively?
The preseason first-team All-American was really struggling before this past week. His average was as low as .196 and he was letting it affect his fielding. But he's had multiple hits in each of the last five games (all of which Ole Miss has won) to pull his season average up to .246 in the span of a week.
To me, it looks like Robinson is now trying to drive the ball more up the middle and/or opposite field. He appears more relaxed and patient at the dish, especially when behind in the count. Arkansas presented some quality arms over the weekend and Errol was able to go 2-for-4, 2-for-5 and 2-for-4 in those three games. Those are numbers that will always work, especially against an SEC opponent.
No coincidence that his hot bat also contributed to improved play in the field as he made web gem worthy plays left and right. Confidence at the plate really brings out that swagger in the field. Not the other way around. So it's definitely encouraging to see Eazy swinging the stick better since his play in the field was elevated over the weekend agaisnt the Hogs. Here's to hoping Errol continues on his tear back to the .300 club. This club really needs it.
How to watch
First pitch: Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. CT
Online streaming: WatchESPN.com
Online radio: TuneIn - Ole Miss IMG Sports Network
Ole Miss: RHP James McArthur (4-0, 4.28 ERA, 27.1 IP, 27 K, 6 BB)
USM: LHP Stevie Powers (0-0, 2.51 ERA, 14.1 IP, 11 K, 9 BB)