There are many questions surrounding Ole Miss baseball at the moment. When will Colby Bortles and Tate Blackman return from suspension? What can be done to break the current hitting slump? Are the offensive issues merely a phase or cause for greater worry than we realize? With conference play just over a week away, the answers should reveal themselves soon enough.
After racing into the season and taking the NCAA by storm with a 7-0 start, head coach Mike Bianco’s Rebels have dropped five of their last six (now sitting at 8-5) and have struggled to maintain any sort of offensive consistency. The slump began before the suspensions of co-captains Bortles and Blackman, yet the lack of veteran leadership has only made things worse.
Bortles’ 12 RBIs are almost double anyone else on the team, and he also leads in homers and slugging percentage. On top of that, his suspension forced centerfielder Ryan Olenek to move to third, while Kyle Watson holds Olenek’s spot. Blackman’s absence hurts just as much, if not more, as he was first on the team in batting average and is near the top of nearly every other offensive category.
While the impact of the upperclassmen leaders’ suspension is not up for debate, the duration is. Bianco has made no comments so far as to when he plans on reinstating the two starters. With obvious hitting issues and a lack of leadership at the moment, that decision may come sooner rather than later.
But the Rebels’ problems don’t stop there. Nine men play baseball at a time, and even without Bortles and Blackman, the Rebels should still be getting results with the quality Bianco has at his disposal. So where does the rest of the blame fall?
First and foremost, one should look at the freshmen. This is an abnormally young team, after all, with four freshmen consistently starting and many more contributing. Despite hot starts at the plate from left fielder Thomas Dillard, first baseman Cole Zabowski, short stop Grae Kessinger and catcher Cooper Johnson, only Zabowski has been able to maintain any sort of offensive consistency. Dillard hasn’t registered a single hit in the past five games, while Kessinger and Johnson are both hitting less than .200. Zabowski’s hitting, it should be noted, has been impressive throughout the season He is still tied with Blackman for top batting average on the team with .316.
Still, the overall inconsistency at the plate casts serious doubt on the level of success this team can achieve. But then again, this a young team and it takes time to adjust to the competition. It can’t be forgotten that this is the same team that handily swept ECU and UNCW, both ranked at the time. It has the talent to be successful. Slumps occur in every sport, baseball perhaps more than any other, so the current struggles may not be the death notice many seem to fear.
Ole Miss stills boast the same outstanding pitching and consistently impressive fielding that has won it games. In terms of defense, the Rebels are on par with anyone in the nation. Yet at the end of the day, holding opposing teams to one or two runs won’t help if the Rebels can’t score a few themselves. Don’t count Ole Miss out quite yet – pitching alone is enough to make it an SEC contender, but Mike Bianco needs to get his offense in gear before it’s too late.