Things got off to a rough start for Ryan Rolison on Saturday night. He walked a guy in each of the first two innings and hard-hit balls off the bats of Saint Louis hitters brought both of them around to score as Ole Miss fell into an early 2-0 hole in its NCAA Tournament opener.
Then Rolison found a rhythm, settled down and looked like a guy projected to go in the first round of next week’s MLB Draft. At the end of the top of the seventh, he walked off the mound with a career-high 13 strikeouts and a 9-2 lead that ended up as the final score.
It was a bit of a microcosm of Rolison’s up-and-down (actually, down-and-up) season. After an impressive freshman campaign, he came into 2018 as the unquestioned ace of the Rebels staff and one of the elite arms in the SEC. But after cruising through non-con play, things got bumpy. On the road at Texas A&M, he lasted just four innings and gave up three runs. A week later against Arkansas, he got hammered for five runs and left in the sixth. The low-point came at South Carolina, where the Gamecocks hammered him for eight runs on 10 hits and chased him one out into the fourth inning. After walking off the mound in Columbia, Rolison had a 5.09 ERA through his first eight conference starts.
The Ole Miss bats were surging, but pitching inconsistency throughout the starting rotation and bullpen was threatening to derail the season. The chance for a national seed was flickering and any hope of a deep postseason run seemed dependent on Rolison finding a groove.
He did just that. Rolison shook off the disaster in Columbia and pitched 6.1 innings of two-hit ball against Auburn, setting the tone for an eventual sweep of the Tigers. A week later he allowed just two hits through six innings to beat Bama in a series that clinched the SEC West. And even though the bullpen blew the Rebels’ opening game of the SEC Tourney, Rolison left the mound with a 2-0 lead. Four days later, he even came out of the pen for two hitless innings to help Ole Miss take the SEC Championship game from LSU.
“Really it was just some mechanic work, getting more direction toward home plate,” Rolison said Saturday night when asked about what changed after South Carolina. “I was struggling to get arm-side and glove-side—I think my strength is to pitch in to righties and away to lefties, so I was able to get back to that.”
He had pinpoint accuracy from the third inning on against Saint Louis, torching batters with high heat and mystifying them with a wipeout slider buried low and inside against righties.
“[Rolison] didn’t give us anything and gave us another gear after the second inning,” SLU coach Darin Hendrickson told Rebel Grove. “He went to a different level.”
Ole Miss will need Rolison to stay at that level if its going to make a run in the postseason. For as good as the offense is, the Rebs aren’t going to be able to simply bash their way to Omaha. The pitching will get tougher with every round and there will inevitably be a low-scoring game or two that the Rebs have to find a way to win. If Rolison keeps pitching the way he did in the opener, you have to like their chances.