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Cioffi strong in relief as Ole Miss holds off Little Rock

Some days are easier than others to manufacture energy at the ballpark. Tuesday was one of the more difficult days for  Ole Miss as it beat Arkansas Little Rock, 11-8, in a rather lethargic performance aside from reliever Max Cioffi’s 3.2 innings of scoreless baseball.

Cioffi struck out seven, walked two and scattered five hits in a fastball-heavy outing that totaled 81 pitches. He mixed in a handful of sliders as well. The Chicago native said he felt like he was in high school, pitching in sub-45-degree temperatures, conditions that usually make pitching more difficult.

“The fastball was definitely working,” Cioffi said.”I thought the slider was good too, but they were struggling to hit the fastball so we just stuck with it.”

Cioffi entered the game in the fifth inning in place of Jordan Fowler, who produced four scoreless frames before being largely responsible for his own demise. The lefty plunked the first two batters he faced, gave up an RBI single to right field and a bunt single that plated another run. Little Rock outfielder Chase Coker stole second base, which allowed Miguel Soto to score on the throw. Coker stole third and Fowler was ousted from the game. Cioffi cleaned up the  mess aside from yielding an RBI base hit that was charged to Fowler, and escaped the four-run inning.

“His fastball (was working),” head coach Mike Bianco said. “The fastball plays up, even though the radar gun doesn’t do his fastball justice. ”

There were signs of improvement from what has been a struggle in the early stages of 2019 for Fowler. He appeared more comfortable on the mound and had a better level of command in spurts, but that command faded in the fifth, which led to his downfall. Ole Miss’ starting pitching has been a sore spot through 11 games. And though the season is still young, the sample size is certainly large enough to raise a bit of concern.

“It was nice that he threw the ball into the strike zone,” Bianco said on Fowler’s outing. “At the end of the day though, he went four-and-a-third and hit three guys and walked a guy or two. At the end of the day, you have to pitch better than that.”

Fowler’s outing, in a way, was emblematic of Ole Miss’ performance as a whole: The Rebels did some good things, but didn’t exit the game with a good feeling about how they arrived at the result.  Ole Miss’ offense has been as prolific as expected, if not exceeding lofty expectations to this point and has covered some of the warts the pitching staff has sprouted.

The top of the Rebels’ lineup pummeled Trojans’ righty Aaron Funk, plating a run in the first and four more in the second. Tyler Keenan was 3-for-5 with 4 RBIs. Grae Kessinger and Anthony Servideo each had two hits in front of Keenan.

The Little Rock staff as a whole was not a worthy match for an SEC offense, but Ole Miss had blunders that did not effect the outcome. The Rebels botched a pair of bunts that aided the Trojans four-run inning. Keenan mistook a two-ball count for a three-ball count on the base path in the second inning and Ryan Olenek bunted into an out.

“It was a disappointing game,” Bianco said. “I hate to sound negative after a win, but we didn’t play well today. We know we can hit and score runs offensively, but we left some runners on third base with less than two outs. We missed signals, don’t know the count. Just a really sloppy game by us.”

Little Rock nearly escalated the game into total abject disaster for the Rebels with a four-run ninth that trimmed margin to 11-8. Ray Falk did not record an out in his Ole Miss debut and Kaleb Hill gave up a triple that allowed all three of the runners he inherited to score, all charged to Falk. The Rebels escaped with their ninth win of the year despite the lethargic performance. They’ll need to quickly put it in the rearview with an 18th-ranked East Carolina club coming to Oxford on Wednesday.

Freshman Doug Nikhazy will make his first career start for Ole Miss, in what could be a  semi-audition for a weekend rotation slot later in the season.

“We’re looking for him to put some zeros up,” Bianco said . “He’s one of the guys that coming into the season we knew had a chance to start on the weekend. We thought this was a good opportunity to get him in there.”

photo credit: Cam Brooks — Ole Miss Athletics 

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