So, Ole Miss begins the NCAA Tournament at Swayze Field on Friday, playing at home for the third time in four seasons.
The Rebels reached the Oxford Regional after a deep SEC Tournament run fueled by solid pitching from both starters and relievers alike.
It was not the path many thought would lead to host status for a team that was replacing three weekend starters and returned more than half a dozen position players, most of them with very productive bats from a team that led the SEC in hitting.
No, the belief in February was that this team would hit while the pitching caught up.
The pitching came around, but the hitting in Hoover was a snapshot of most of the season – erratic. The Rebels hit well in the semifinal against Georgia’s top two starters and in the final against Vanderbilt’s career wins leader, but through the first four games they had three wins in spite of hitting just .180.
Ole Miss will no doubt need to strike a pitching-hitting balance this weekend to advance from a regional for the first time since 2014 when it made its Omaha run.
If you had to Google teams like Tennessee Tech, Saint Louis and Missouri State last year, you’ve likely heard of Illinois, the regional 2 seed this year, and 3 seed Clemson, which has a history of NCAA Tournament success. No. 4 seed Jacksonville State will be no easy out for Ole Miss Friday night at 7.
While blance is important, most intriguing about the SEC run was the pitching the Rebels got from Parker Caracci and Austin Miller, season-long success stories who both fell off the wagon late in the season, and from other guys who had been B List SEC options.
Max Cioffi, Connor Green and Kaleb Hill combined to throw 3 1/3 scoreless innings against Georgia to hand the ball to Caracci. It was the fifth game of the tournament for Ole Miss, its fourth win.
Caracci saved three wins, throwing 3 1/3 scoreless innings over three appearances. He did not resemble the guy that gave up three-straight home runs at LSU or lost a late lead at Arkansas State.
The Ole Miss bullpen was Ground Zero for the team’s struggles in the six-game losing streak. In Hoover the relievers allowed just one earned run through 12 1/3 innings – a 0.73 ERA – for the first five games.
That changed against Vanderbilt when most of those arms were making their second appearances – or more – for the week against the SEC’s No. 1 offense which had played two fewer games.
The Rebels don’t make their SEC run without a turnaround from Miller and Caracci or without big pitches from others.
If they don’t get more of the same this weekend it could be more of the same – as in struggling in a home regional – for this NCAA Tournament.