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Bullpen falters in disastrous seventh inning as Rebels drop series to Mississippi State

The Ole Miss bullpen coughed up a lead for the second time in three games, the latest instance  in an 8-5 loss to Mississippi State in a game the Rebels led 4-2 after six innings.

Ole Miss entered the night 25-0 when leading after six complete, a mark that no longer held true after a disastrous seventh inning. Austin Miller relieved starter Doug Nikhazy to begin the frame. The junior right-hander gave up back-to-back doubles, followed by a walk and a Jake Mangum base hit that tied the game at four. He failed to retire any of the four hitters he faced. The breaking ball hovered up in the zone and his misplaced a couple of fastballs that proved costly.  

“I didn’t have a lot of feel,” Miller said. “I didn’t have much feel for the breaking ball. It was up. Everything was up. The mound was slick. The cleats were heavy. I just didn’t have much feel tonight.”

It put head coach Mike Bianco in a bind, electing to go directly to Parker Caracci with nine outs left to be collected. Caracci inherited runners at second and third, both of whom scored on a Tanner Allen single to center field. A Rowdey Jordan 2-RBI single capped the damage in a six-run inning that turned the game entirely. 

“It happens in our game sometimes,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “Two guys who are arguably our two best pitchers numbers-wise, just couldn’t get through the inning. They couldn’t get off the field. That is just tough.”

The Ole Miss bullpen has been good for most of the season. It lacks depth, however, and that has shown at times. Perhaps more frequently of late. Miller and Caracci — despite their struggles in this game — are the two most dependable arms the unit has to offer. Houston Roth has effective after struggling earlier in the season, piecing together scoreless outings in five of his last six appearances. But Tyler Myers hasn’t produced a scoreless appearance since April 9 and Max Cioffi has not retired a batter in either of his last two outings. Caracci, who was responsible for two of the six runs that cross in the inning, is on the heels of an outing that saw him give up six runs in the bottom of the ninth inning in the series finale at LSU. 

The overarching point is that Bianco has had a difficult time getting a feel of who he can trust after Miller and Caracci. Myers has been good for most of the season. Roth has been good lately and Cioffi has had moments. It’s the lack of consistency that has brought uncertainty and the pen’s recent struggles have magnified that.

“We have to just keep doing our thing,” Miller said. “It is baseball. Stuff happens. Some games you are going to have it and others you are not. Our morale has not wavered at all. We all have each other’s backs.”

The faltering bullpen unwound six innings of handiwork by Nikhazy, who gave up two runs on four hits with five strikeouts and three walks. Nikhazy walked in a run in the third inning after loading the bases with no outs. He escaped further damage by inducing a ground ball from Allen for a 1-2-3 double play to end the frame. State tagged Nikhazy for another run in the fourth when Elijah MacNamee hit a leadoff double and eventually scored on a double play ball.  It tied the game at two apiece.

Like Miller, The freshman lefty did not have his best stuff and struggled to get a feel for a couple of his pitches. The difference, however, was that Nikhazy was able to scrape together a productive outing and put Ole Miss in a position to win the game.

“Stuff-wise, if you were evaluating, it was probably his worst outing in a long time,” Bianco said. “But you see why he is so good. It is not just about stuff. There are some guys with really good stuff that can’t win but Doug showed you why he is so good. He has good stuff. Tonight he did not, but he really competed.”

Ole Miss took a 2-0 lead in the first inning when it strung together five consecutive productive at-bats off Bulldog starter J.T. Ginn with two outs. Tyler Keenan hit a single and scored two batters later on a Cole Zabowski single following a Thomas Dillard walk. A Cooper Johnson single plated a second run. Ginn continued to labor and it appeared to possibly be headed towards an early exit. He walked Kevin Graham to load the bases. Jacob Adams hit a slow-rolling ball to Bulldog second baseman Justin Foscue, who booted the grounder and then collided with Graham headed to second base. Two more runs came across, but were nullified when Graham was called out for runner’s interference, which appeared to be the incorrect call given that the contact occurred after the baseball had gone by Foscue.

“I was just trying to avoid running into the ball,” Graham said. “I don’t really know what happened. Apparently he missed it before I got hit. He hit me afterwards. I am not sure.”

An irate Bianco presented his case to second base umpire Tyler Simpson to no avail. Bianco said he did not receive an explanation for the call. It was a significant break for Ginn, who retired the next nine hitters he faced. Ole Miss regained a 3-2 lead in the fifth on a wild pitch from Ginn, who did not survive the inning and gave way to Trystan Barlow.

Ole Miss added an insurance run in the sixth before the seventh inning debacle handed the Rebels with their third loss of the year to the Bulldogs and vying to fend off a sweep on Sunday. The Bulldogs have won 13 of the last 15 meetings between the two schools. 

“We have to bounce back tomorrow and salvage the weekend,” Graham said. “We cannot lose three in a row to these guys. We have to come out with a lot of energy tomorrow and win a game.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics 

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