After dropping three straight in their series with main rival Mississippi State last weekend, head coach Mike Bianco and his Rebels found an unexpected surge of offensive playmaking in their wild 12-inning victory over No. 17 Southern Miss Tuesday night. The sudden display of solid hitting could prove monumental as the Rebs move into their weekend series against Alabama.
The Crimson Tide currently sits in last place in the SEC West yet is just one game back from Ole Miss in the standings. If the Rebels can replicate the offensive success they were able to find in their victory over the Golden Eagles, they could very likely sweep the weekend series and finally secure a solid footing in the SEC West race. A sweep would not only raise Ole Miss’ conference record to .500, but it could also move it past Texas A&M to at least fifth in the West.
While the Tide certainly isn’t the same level of competition as some of the teams Ole Miss has faced this season, defeating any team three games in a row is a tall order, and the Rebels won’t expect to find repeated success if they can’t turn at-bats into base hits and base hits into runs. This process of building solid offensive playmaking begins with the veterans.
Captains Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles have certainly had their ups and downs this season, but one thing remains constant: When the veterans are batting in top form, the Rebs will be in a position to win. This fact remained true as ever Tuesday night as Blackman, Bortles and junior Will Golsan each drove in RBI hits, with Blackman adding in a run of his own. The star of the game, however, was sophomore Ryan Olenek – not a veteran in years, but certainly one in big-game playmaking – who added three hits and a run on the night.
If Ole Miss’ veterans can maintain offensive consistency throughout each game, then Alabama could prove an inconsequential obstacle. However, to really guarantee a return to that early-season offensive form and mark a turning point in the season, the Rebels must see more production from the younger guys on the team. The veterans have proven they can do what they need to win games, but with almost half of the roster comprised of first-year players, Bianco is going to need a push from his freshman class in order to defeat Alabama and prove the season isn’t lost.
The beginning of the season saw the incredible potential that underlies this talented class, with first-years Thomas Dillard, Cole Zabowski and Grae Kessinger contributing early and often at the plate. Lately, however, the three freshman starters have seen their stats dip. In fact, the four freshmen in the batting order are all in the bottom five of batting average. It has been clear the hits have been few and far between for the younger guys since conference play opened up, and when a player would register a hit, he would often be left stranded on base.
While the Rebs’ last game saw a slight improvement with three of the core freshmen registering hits, it is vastly important that the first-years improve even more. Solid pitching and veteran play-making may be enough to take one, maybe two, against Alabama, but it will take a full team effort to conduct a sweep and begin the process of turning this season around. If Bianco can get things going at the plate early in the series, we might get to see the Rebels we were promised early in the season. However, a failure to establish scoring will surely lead to a continuation of mediocrity and a defeat at the hands of the SEC West’s bottom squad.