Notes and thoughts from the weekend and looking ahead ...
If you’ve never watched an Ole Miss softball game – I haven’t seen many – and want to jump aboard the wagon feel free. The staff and players are glad to have you. They truly are enjoying this moment.
If it seems like softball success is coming all of sudden it is – at least at this level. The Rebels had a historic season last year when Mike Smith was in his second year as coach. So the idea that they would do well enough to return to the NCAA tournament is not surprising.
However, this team was just an eight seed in the SEC tournament, a league that includes No. 1 Florida and three other teams ranked in the top 11.
For Ole Miss, there was also that 0-6 conference start to consider. If you were wondering about the ladies then, well, so were their coaches.
Smith and the Rebels regrouped, though, and with their 4-0 run through the tournament have won 14 of their last 22 conference games. That’s a big deal. The committee obviously believed so, and rewarded the Rebels with a No. 12 seed.
One of the most impressive feats about Smith’s work this season is how he helped this team compensate for two huge losses. Madi Osias was a dominant pitcher last year. She was a senior, and Smith could prepare for her loss.
The loss of last year’s best position player, however, caught Smith by surprise. Hailey Lunderman hit .371 and fielded .959 as a freshman shortstop when she decided to give up the sport. Smith was able to tweak that position and fill that void too.
So its back-to-back historic seasons for Ole Miss softball, and this one isn’t finished.
It’s time for vice chair for athletics Ross Bjork to be proactive in retaining Smith. ...
Baseball did the bare minimum of what it had to do against Texas A&M, and that was win the series.
It didn’t start well, and for the first 16 innings of the weekend the Rebels’ chances to win twice looked bleak.
However, Grae Kessinger, a sub-.200 hitter all year, had a huge at-bat in the eighth inning of Game 2, a run-scoring double, as the Rebels scored four times in the eighth and went on to win 6-4. Kessinger hasn’t had a lot of big hits, but he has usually put the ball in play. In that at-bat – one that changed the momentum of the series – he fouled off a number of pitches before getting one he could handle and driving it to the warning track in left-center.
Pitching was really good on Sunday as David Parkinson went six innings – his longest outing in a month – and allowed one run, and home runs by Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles helped the Rebels pull away in a 6-3 win.
Ole Miss faces Arkansas State tonight. Should the Rebels lose it would not be helpful, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic. The RPI, at 32 now, would likely remain in the 30s, and nothing would change. Ole Miss needs to win twice at Auburn to really feel good about its NCAA chances. That would get the Rebels to 15 SEC wins and would virtually assure them a spot in the field. Winning just once at Auburn could be enough. That would give Ole Miss 14 league wins but without the strong RPI it’s had in recent seasons. Fate would then hinge in large part on the “bubble” and how many bid-stealers emerge in other conference tournaments. It’s best not to make the committee think too hard and just pass the Rebels on through the gates. Two wins at Auburn should get that done.
As the Rebels arrive at this critical juncture their No. 1 weekend starter, sophomore right-hander James McArthur, has struggled more times than he’s been dominant. He was very good against Arkansas on April 27, allowing just one run in eight innings.
In two starts before that game and two starts since McArthur has allowed 24 runs – all earned – in 19 1/3 innings.
Command is the issue McArthur will try to correct Thursday at Auburn. He says he’s left too many fastballs up in the zone and hasn’t been able to get his breaking stuff into the zone as often as he’d like.
McArthur’s early exits with high runs allowed have at times caused Mike Bianco to dig deeper into his bullpen earlier in conference play than he’d like.
Also, closer Dallas Woolfolk has allowed five runs – four earned – in his last three outings.
That and other factors have combined to push the Rebels’ team ERA to 3.47, now fourth in the league. They’d been 1 or 2 most of the season.
Offensively Ole Miss is hitting .256, a figure that won’t “wow” you, but there has been improvement from a time when the Rebels were hitting .242.
Much of the season this team did not have a .300 hitter. Right now, Nick Fortes is hitting .328, Will Golsan .317 and Tate Blackman .299.
Fortes has really rewarded Bianco’s confidence in him as a mid-season change to the lineup.
Tim Rowe, another mid-season change, started off hot but has tailed off a little bit and is now dealing with a hamstring injury.
Since bottoming out with a .137 average after an 0 for 4 performance against UAPB on April 19 freshman catcher Cooper Johnson is hitting .282 with four doubles. He’s increased his season average 69 points to .206.
Ole Miss hit .303 and averaged 5.6 runs against A&M which replaced Ole Miss as the SEC’s top ERA staff. The Aggies are at 3.13 this week.
I don’t expect Ole Miss to be a dynamic offensive team this season, but there’s a false narrative that there’s been no improvement. There has been.
There are still guys who need to swing better to help this team. Thomas Dillard, Chase Cockrell and Cole Zabowski come to mind. They’re all newcomers. It’s hard to believe they won’t be better as second-year players.