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Ole Miss baseball takes on winless Long Beach State at Swayze this weekend

LBSU isn’t the resume-boosting series Mike Bianco had in mind when he scheduled them, but they could give the struggling Rebel rotation a chance to catch its breath.

Josh McCoy-Ole Miss Athletics

Fresh off a 12-6 trouncing of UT-Martin on Tuesday, the 5-2 Ole Miss Rebels return to the diamond this weekend to host Long Beach State. If you remember, the good guys traveled west to California early last season and took two-of-three from these same Dirtbags in a hard-fought series.

This year has the makings of a much different story.

LBSU limps into Oxford, Miss. with a 0-7 record after a midweek defeat to San Diego sandwiched in between weekend sweeps by No. 7 Florida and Nevada. They have just three everyday players hitting over .200 and are hitting at a .156(!) clip as a ball club. The Ole Miss pitchers stumbled out of the gate regularly this season, so this series comes at the opportune time.

Ole Miss hopes to have Friday starter Will Ethridge back after he missed last weekend’s start with a blister issue. The other two starters, Zack Phillips and Gunnar Hoglund, have to be itching to get back out there after another pair of lackluster starts against Tulane.

The Rebs are absolutely dialed in at the plate, carrying a .305 team average into the weekend. Ryan Olenek and Thomas Dillard are each hitting .481 and Tyler Keenan is right behind them at a .321 clip.

How to watch

TV: none
Online: WatchESPN
Audio: TuneIn

Friday: 6:30 p.m. CT
Saturday: 1:30 p.m. CT
Saturday: 5:30 p.m. CT

3 things to look for this weekend

Can anyone stop Thomas Dillard?

The reigning National and SEC Player of the Week was UNCONSCIOUS with the bat last week, hitting .412 while slugging 1.118(!), driving in 13 runs and mashing three home runs. Through seven games, Dillard ranks top-five nationally in homers, slugging percentage and total bases.

Can he keep up this torrid pace? Well, no, but there’s no one seeing the ball better in the Ole Miss lineup and I would put him up against anyone else in the Southeastern Conference in terms of statistics. His eye at the plate is so undervalued and he is rarely caught off-guard at the dish.

Can Gunnar Hoglund get on track?

The Pirates’ 36th overall pick would probably tell you before I will that he needs to improve. In his two college starts, he’s surrendered 12 hits (.444 opponent batting average) and four earned runs (6.00 ERA) over six innings.

What we don’t see in the box score is how he has reacted to these bad situations on the rubber. Yes, he has been knocked around in his two starts, but he has been able to come settle down after those poor innings and make pitches. Remember, Hoglund is a true freshman who was pitching against high school kids this time last year so he is still adjusting. He didn’t have to really locate his stuff because he was so overpowering at that level. That is no longer the case.

Which new name will emerge in the bullpen?

The pitching—especially the starting pitching—had plenty of rough moments in New Orleans last weekend, but the bullpen should get a ton of credit for Sunday’s series-clinching win.

The Rebs held Tulane scoreless in eight of nine innings on Sunday. Connor Green, a relatively unknown commodity since his freshman campaign, got out of a huge jam, needing only two pitches to keep the score at 3-2 and to get some much-needed momentum to swing Ole Miss’ way. After getting two more outs the next inning, he turned things over to true freshman lefty Kaleb Hill, who flat-out overpowered a hitter with some nasty stuff. To close things out, freshman southpaw Doug Nikhazy earned his first career save with a three up, three down final frame.

If I was a betting man, I would say Hill and Nikhazy are going to be the names to know moving forward. They’re both left-handed, throw in the low-to-mid 90s, and have that swagger you want on the bump. In 4.1 innings pitched this season, Nikhazy has a clean sheet and eight strikeouts. He’s making a case to be the first guy out of the pen when things get hairy.