With just 20 games left in the regular season, Rebel baseball has entered crunch time as the team pushes for a strong finish, hoping to ensure a deep run in the SEC Tournament.
Wednesday night’s matchup against the Arkansas Pine Bluff Golden Lions represents a crucial opportunity for head coach Mike Bianco and his team to get back on track after a tough series loss to LSU over the weekend.
The Golden Lions have struggled this season to establish consistency; their record currently sits at a middling 12-23. After a string of tough intraconference matchups this month, the Rebels are surely looking forward to a lower-profile matchup against a non-SEC opponent.
But despite the clear on-paper advantage, the Rebels will need to focus on a number of factors if they hope to overwhelm the Golden Lions and gain back some much-needed momentum.
Not underestimating the opponent
There is no denying the fact that Arkansas Pine Bluff is not a nationally renowned baseball school.
With that said, Bianco and his team must appreciate that, despite their underwhelming record, Arkansas Pine Bluff has demonstrated plenty of competency against top SEC opponents.
Look no further than the Golden Lions’ results from earlier this season.
On March 12, Arkansas Pine Bluff upset Alabama 8-3 in Tuscaloosa as part of a doubleheader matchup. Sure, it dropped three of its four games to Alabama, but the point stands: One game’s worth of lapsed focus is all the Golden Lions need to pounce.
Two days after the Alabama victory, Arkansas Pine Bluff nearly knocked Mississippi State off in Starkville. A four-run ninth inning gave the Bulldogs plenty of cause for concern, but State was able to fend off the upset.
The Rebels cannot afford to look past the Golden Lions; with playoffs on the horizon, a loss on Wednesday could push Ole Miss into an unrecoverable spiral.
Maintaining focus down the stretch
The Golden Lions are not going down without a fight. As shown with their neat victory over Mississippi State, Arkansas Pine Bluff is no stranger to late-game comebacks.
It will be imperative that Ole Miss not only score early and often but that it keeps its foot on the gas throughout the entirety of the game. The Rebels have, numerous times this season, allowed opponents to climb out of early deficit holes.
This cannot be the case on Wednesday. A Golden Lions come-from-behind victory would crush Bianco’s team, a near death wish as the season draws to a close.
To dissuade any final-inning magic from the Golden Lions, Ole Miss will need to be liberal with its bullpen. While Bianco may wish to rest some of his pitching staff, having capable relievers and a closer waiting in the wings will be paramount in ensuring the Golden Lions don’t take advantage of late-game pitching miscues.
Making home-field advantage count
The Rebels only have three more home series this season. Taking advantage of Wednesday’s location will be vital for the Rebels as they move toward the tail end of their schedule.
Fans love to downplay the impact of collegiate crowds at away games, but every experienced coach or player knows having the stadium on your side can be an absolute game changer.
Taking advantage of Swayze field’s hostile environment and impressive crowd noise could be the difference between a win and a loss for Bianco’s men.