It was Saturday in Fayetteville and Ole Miss, trailing Arkansas 3-1 in the top of the fifth inning, appeared to be sliding out of contention in the SEC West. The Rebels had lost to the Hogs on Friday, their third defeat in the past four games after dropping a surprise series at Mizzou last week. A loss on Saturday would slide them to 3-5 in conference play and at least four games out of the division lead. An Ole Miss team that ranked top 10 two weeks ago would probably find itself out of the top-25 entirely.
Then Rebel third baseman Tyler Keenan mashed a homer to right field and, an inning later, first baseman Cole Zabowski* annihilated a ball over the fence in dead center. With the score tied 3-3 in the top of the ninth, shortstop Grae Kessinger roped a liner into the left-center gap to bring in the winning run. The offense rode the momentum from their Saturday rally to a convincing 10-5 Sunday win.
*Zabowski was a monster on Saturday and Sunday, going 6-for-9 with five RBI.
Just like that, the Rebels have a road series win over a top-10 team and find themselves just a game and a half back in a tight SEC West race (every school save for 2-7 Bama is now within a game and a half of 6-2-1 A&M, which tied a game with Mizzou on Sunday).
Falling behind in this year’s loaded SEC West isn’t something the Rebels want to do. D1 Baseball’s April 1 rankings put six of the division’s seven teams in the top 18 (Ole Miss is No. 18).
Just check out the Rebels’ remaining weekend schedule...
- No. 21 Florida
- at No. 15 Auburn
- No. 9 Texas A&M
- at No. 13 LSU
- No. 8 Mississippi State
- at Tennessee
It was nice to see the offense get back on track in Fayetteville—in the two wins, Ole Miss mashed three homers and 26 total hits—but the most significant takeaway is that head coach Mike Bianco seems to have finally found a Saturday starter. Freshman Doug Nikhazy, who was brilliant in his first weekend start last Saturday in Columbia, put up a solid outing in Fayetteville, allowing three runs on five hits over 5.2 innings. Those numbers aren’t stellar, but with an explosive offense and strong arms in the bullpen (Austin Miller and Parker Caracci combined to allow just one hit over the final 3.1 frames behind Nikhazy), the freshman doesn’t need to be lights out.
The discovery of Nikhazy changes the weekend math for Bianco. Between Nikhazy and Friday starter Will Ethridge (who owns a 1.78 ERA through six starts), the Rebels have to like their chances of heading into the third game of any series with at least a 1-1 split. And while freshman Sunday starter Gunnar Hoglund hasn’t yet lived up to lofty expectations (last Sunday marked the fourth time in six weekend starts the former first-round pick hasn’t survived past the fourth inning), the Rebel offense is just fine with getting into Sunday shootouts.
Not that this team doesn’t still face its share of challenges on the mound. Running the SEC gauntlet with a pair of freshman arms in the weekend rotation will be tough. And come tournament time, who does Bianco lean on as a fourth starter? Zack Phillips (5.18 ERA)? Houston Roth (5.79 ERA)? Jordan Fowler (6.75 ERA)? None of those guys have shown consistency this season.
Of course, inconsistency is to be expected from a team replacing its entire weekend rotation from a season ago (something no other club in the SEC has had to do this year). If the young arms can weather the storm of the SEC schedule (and that’s a big if) and the offense can get hot at the right time, this could be a dangerous postseason team. If that happens, we may look back on the middle innings of Saturday’s game in Fayetteville as the moment that sparked a turnaround.