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Ole Miss baseball is really good at pitching... and really bad at hitting

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A sweep at the hands of Mississippi State underscored the disparity between the Rebels’ arms and bats.

Josh McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

The third day of an SEC baseball series usually comes with decreased pitching depth and increased run totals. On Saturday against Mississippi State, though, Ole Miss leaned on two of the country’s top freshman arms to hold one of the best offenses in the conference to just two runs.

And they lost.

That’s because Ole Miss’ moribund lineup mustered just four hits and one run in the third game against a depth-starved State pitching staff that’s missing seven arms due to injury and holds the second to last ERA in the conference. The Rebels put just three men on base through the first eight innings and wasted a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity in the bottom of the ninth, handing the Bulldogs their first sweep in the series since 2003.

Saturday’s loss underscores the theme of the Rebels’ 2017 season: they can pitch the hell out of the ball, they just can’t hit it.

The Rebels have scored two or fewer runs in 12 of their last 20 games, but have limited opponents to two or fewer runs nine times during that same stretch. They rank dead last among SEC teams in runs per game and batting average, but rank second in ERA and first in opponent batting average.

The contrast is stark.

The pitchers have been really good!

With just one of the regular weekend arms returning from last season, starting pitching was a significant question mark coming into 2017. But what could have been the team’s biggest weakness has turned into its biggest strength.

David Parkinson coughed up five earned runs in just 4.2 innings last Friday against State, but don’t let that distract you from the phenomenal job he’s done at the front of the rotation—before that setback, he was 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA. James McArthur, who will presumably shift back to Saturday after throwing televised Thursday games the last couple of weeks, has improved leaps and bounds since his rocky freshman campaign and carries a 2.00 ERA through his first five starts of 2017. And after some shuffling in the Sunday spot, freshman Ryan Rolison’s impressive outing in Game 3 against the Bulldogs suggests Mike Bianco has found a dependable third starter.

The bullpen hasn’t been dominant, but it’s as deep as any in the conference. The decline of closer Will Stokes, who’s disappointing season hit a new low during State’s three-run, eighth-inning rally last Thursday, has been offset by the rise of Dallas Woolfolk, who totes a 0.92 ERA and has the second-most saves in the conference. Brady Feigl’s move back to the pen provides another stopper (he worked 4.1 scoreless innings last Friday) and the freshman trio of Houston Roth, Greer Holston and Will Etheridge give Bianco plenty of depth and flexibility.

The lineup has been really bad!

Rather than me typing a lot of words, let’s just pull up the stats.

Player batting avg. slugging % on-base % at-bats hits-strikouts
Player batting avg. slugging % on-base % at-bats hits-strikouts
Colby Bortles .278 .456 .378 90 25-25
Tate Blackman .277 .372 .389 94 26-20
Ryan Olenek .269 .365 .339 104 28-15
Will Golsan .264 .349 .342 106 28-16
Tim Rowe .256 .359 .293 39 10-10
Cole Zabowski .250 .297 .304 64 16-15
Chase Cockrell .250 .411 .311 56 14-21
Thomas Dillard .232 .390 .344 82 19-27
Grae Kessinger .178 .260 .286 73 13-8
Kyle Watson .163 .286 .263 49 8-15
Cooper Johnson .156 .178 .278 45 7-14

Not good.

That doesn’t mean the offense can’t turn it around.

We know this lineup is capable of hitting—we saw them tear the cover off the ball during the first two weekends (though that was against ECU and UNC-Wilmington staffs that currently rank 107th and 166th, respectively, in team ERA). Cleanup man Colby Bortles has been heating up and Tate Blackman (who hit .322 last season), Will Golsan and Ryan Olenek are more than capable of following suit.

One of the biggest problems thus far has been the lineup’s youth. Ole Miss is regularly starting four freshman, who, after a red-hot start, have cooled off to the point that they’re hitting a combined .208. But Grae Kessinger, Thomas Dillard, Cooper Johnson and Cole Zabowski are some of the most talented freshmen in the country, so it’s not unreasonable to expect them to find their sea legs as conference play wears on.

At this point, Bianco has to hope his pitching staff can keep the team treading water in the SEC standings until the bats come around. With the talent on the mound, it’s not like the Rebs need to be leading the conference in hitting. If this offense can manage to at least be average by the time the postseason rolls around, Ole Miss will be a very dangerous club.