All the momentum garnered from the sweep of Florida is officially gone. The Rebels dropped two of three games in the set away to Auburn.
Just a couple of weekends ago, Ole Miss found itself tied atop the SEC West. Fast forward to today, they’ve only won two of a possible six games in two winnable series. Both Auburn and Kentucky feature one true ace of the pitching staff, but a team like Ole Miss should be able to win both series.
First Base: Grae Kessinger cannot carry the offensive burden alone
This spot in the column now belongs to Kessinger for the foreseeable future because he has touched first base at least once for 28 consecutive games. And he is not just reaching once a game. In recent games, he is finding himself getting on multiple times. After a six-hit weekend, the junior shortstop increased his batting average to .348.
In Saturday’s extra-innings loss, Kessinger accounted for Ole Miss’s run production through the first eight innings. Kessinger’s power was on display on Saturday during a two-home-run outing. His solo shot in the first opened the scoring, and his two-run blast in the fifth inning tied the game.
In a weekend where Ryan Olenek missed out due to a hip injury and Thomas Dillard went 1-11, Kessinger’s big weekend was not enough to win a series. Tyler Keenan and Cooper Johnson provided clutch hits late in Saturday’s game that should have clinched the series, but the pitching then became an issue. If Kessinger was hitting like this with the rest of the lineup playing at an average level, this offense would be unstoppable.
Second Base: Parker Caracci’s scoreless streak ended at the worst time
Austin Miller and Parker Caracci have been putting out fires for Mike Bianco all throughout SEC play. Both have been dominant in extended roles, keeping Ole Miss in games long enough for the offense to do its thing.
Caracci entered Saturday’s game after Johnson tied the game in the top of the ninth with a solo home run. He quickly dispatched the Auburn offense with a quick 1-2-3 inning. That increased his scoreless-inning streak to 14.1 innings over nine games. After Keenan’s RBI-double gave Ole Miss a one-run lead in the tenth inning, Caracci’s struggles became too much.
The first three hitters for the Tigers reached on a single, a walk and a bunt single. Cole Zabowski’s attempt to throw a runner out at home for the first out failed, knotting the game at five. The senior closer stepped up, striking out the next two hitters for the first two outs of the inning. However, a first-pitch single ended the game in walk-off fashion. So many times, Caracci has thrived in that spot. This time, he flew too close to the sun and got burned.
Third Base: One pitch derails another good start for Gunnar Hoglund
Over the past two weeks, Ole Miss has lost the games in which Gunnar Hoglund has started. After working through three innings with ease against Kentucky, a misplaced pitch with two strikes on T.J. Collett led to a wind-aided, three-run home run being all the Wildcats needed. Similarly, the first eight outs for Hoglund in Auburn came without a hitch. Then, the struggles reappeared.
The Tigers loaded the bases with two walks and a single. Edouard Julien sent all three runners to the plate with a double. Hoglund has shown flashes of the guy that the Pittsburgh Pirates saw when they selected him in the first-round last summer. The fastball is going to be a great pitch, and his curveball is going to rack up strikeouts as his maturation progresses.
Mike Bianco has had his freshman starter on a short leash for the entire season with the last two starts being prime examples as to why.
At the Plate: Hosting a Regional could be fading into the background
Ole Miss now owns a record of 27-14 overall. Its SEC record sits at 10-8, tied with Auburn and Mississippi State for one spot off the bottom in the SEC West. The midweek resume looks bleak. There are still four games on the schedule against the in-state rivals, three against Texas A&M at home and trips to Baton Rouge and Knoxville.
With how the first 41 games have gone, this team looks more and more like a two seed in the postseason. Just a few weeks ago, accepting anything less than a national seed would have been a disappointment. The next few weeks are pivotal in the run to the end of the season.