HOOVER, Ala — Last Monday afternoon, the red Ole Miss team bus pulled up to the facade of Hoover Metropolitan group carrying a team in a tailspin.
Losers of six of seven to end the regular season and devoid of any semblance of a pulse, or admittedly, belief in righting the ship, Ole Miss was seemingly a handful of games away from being put out of its misery in a 2019 season that appeared to be inching toward the brink of disaster.
“During that six-game losing streak, we didn’t really believe,” Cooper Johnson said.
The bullpen was broken. It was over-taxed, incapable of recording outs and unable to preserve leads. It led to demoralizing defeats like blowing a five-run lead in the eighth inning in an RPI-damaging loss to Arkansas State, or wasting a six-inning gem from Doug Nikhazy in a game two loss to Mississippi State, or surrendering a nine-run fourth inning the next day in a Bulldog sweep that was one of the worst regular season weekends of the Mike Bianco era. All-American closer Parker Caracci was a shell of himself, to the point of Bianco using Ryan Olenek to close out the regular season finale in Knoxville to snap the losing streak.
The offense was not scoring runs. Ole Miss did not plate more than five runs in any of the last seven games in the regular season. SEC hits leader Grae Kessinger fell into an 11-for-52 slump that bled into the beginning of Hoover. Thomas Dillard was not hitting the ball out of the ballpark and his lack of production in the middle of the order forced Bianco to bump him to leadoff to better utilize his on-base percentage.
No one on the team is able to point to what tangibly changed or when exactly that happened. But at some point from the time the team arrived Monday afternoon for practice before a single-elimination game against Missouri, something flipped. The sense of belief amongst the team reappeared.
“I don’t know when the exact point was,” head coach Mike Bianco said following Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt. “But at some point this week, we started playing different. We started acting different. That is the belief (Johnson) was talking about. I would have love to have won today, but we started playing better. You could sense it.
“When you talk about finding yourself at the SEC Tournament or flipping switch, that happened to us this week.”
Ole Miss avoided a single-night trip with a 2-1 win over Missouri behind seven dominant innings from Will Ethridge. It fell into the loser’s bracket in a sloppy 5-3 loss to Arkansas on Wednesday, only to win three straight to reach the championship game on Sunday. The Rebels toppled over national seeds Georgia and Arkansas. The offense plated five runs on 10 hits off two future first round draft picks Emerson Hancock and Tony Locey in the semifinal win over Georgia. It scored 10 runs against a Vanderbilt staff flush with arms that hurl mid 90s fastballs on the black.
Dillard thrive in the leadoff role, earning All-Tournament team honors. Kessinger had five hits on the weekend and clubbed a two-run shot that lifted the team in the semifinals.
“At some point, something kind of switched,” Johnson said. “It’s almost all belief. This week, we started to believe. We knew we were going to win. This is a veteran club. It was coming all along; it was just a matter of when. It’s happening at the best possible time it can. I’m super proud of the way that we went out this week and what’s to come. We have a lot of baseball left.”
This week offered Ole Miss a chance to rectify some of its ailments, the bullpen at the center of that mission. The unit entered Sunday’s game having pitched 12.1 innings of one-run baseball over four games. It preserved three one-run leads. Caracci recorded a save in three consecutive days. He too made the All-Tournament team.
“I do not believe we can win in the postseason without Parker Caracci,” said Bianco after Caracci capped a 1-0 win over Texas A&M, sealing eight innings of brilliance from Doug Nikhazy. “I don’t believe we can do that. I think most people on our team believe that. He has won so many big games. He’s been in that moment more times than most kids in this conference.”
The team played loose. Bianco was self-deprecating even after losses, quipping about his general studies degree from LSU when asked about an potential injury to Johnson following the Arkansas loss. The Rebels had a renewed energy in the dugout, partaking in goofy rally superstitions and hanging on every pitch. There was a different collective vibe.
Bonus points for creativity. pic.twitter.com/DSxs0sFwaZ
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 26, 2019
When Ole Miss arrived on Tuesday, its chances at hosting a regional were nearly nonexistent, barring a run that stretched until Sunday and perhaps winning the entire thing. The week was seemingly more so about checking to see whether or not this team did in fact have a pulse. It ended with the guarantee of postseason baseball at Swayze Field. Less than an hour after addressing the media following an 11-10 loss to the Commodores in which the Rebels ran out of pitching and were unable to salt away an early 9-1 lead, the NCAA selection committee announced Oxford as a host site, overlooking a problematic 22 RPI and giving Ole Miss the nod over Texas A&M which it beat all four times this season.
“It’s tough decisions when you start to pick,” said Bianco in the moments after the loss, noting that it was likely too late to plead his case. “There are a lot of things to like about our resume. We have done a lot of good things. Unfortunately, we did not finish the year well. It has been said enough. But this team has done a lot of good things.”
Bianco pointed out that the eye-test matters too, an examination that is subjective compared to the metrics in place, but perhaps appropriate when examining this puzzling group. This 2019 season was defined in part by inconsistency. This team soared to 15-9 in the SEC after its first series win at LSU since 1982. It also lost six of its last seven games. The Rebels dropped midweek contests to North Alabama and Arkansas State. Lethargic midweek showings were the cause of the RPI blemish. It was 4-5 against the likes of Missouri, Kentucky and Alabama, the latter two did not qualify for the SEC Tournament. The Rebels took two games at Arkansas and beat the Razorbacks a third time in Hoover. It swept Texas A&M and pummeled Florida.
Who was the real Ole Miss team? That’s a question that was often asked as the Rebels cratered to a new low or soared towards a peak.
There were times where the offense looked elite. There were other times it looked deceased. The bullpen was good for March and half of April, but failed the team in the season’s final three weeks. There were rumblings that things were going stale. Each loss during the program’s first six-game skid since 2013 seemingly only made those questions louder and more frequent. After a week in Alabama, the team will take the field again in its home ballpark, seemingly playing its best baseball of the season.
“This whole week showed us what we are really capable of,” Dillard said. “It showed how dangerous we can be.”
Who is the real Ole Miss team? Perhaps that remains to be seen.