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Four thoughts from Ole Miss’ road series win at Arkansas

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic in late March, in the midst of a marathon that is a baseball season, Sunday’s 10-5 win for Ole Miss over Arkansas to lock up a road series over a top ten opponent was a massive occurrence for a team that has struggled to play consistent baseball for nearly two months now.

Trying to pinpoint a turning point or a light switch moment in a season that is comprised of 56 games over five months can often be a futile exercise. But this had all the makings of a turning point for the Rebels, who’d stumbled to a 3-3 start in league play in series against perceived bottom feeders Alabama and Missouri. The Rebels responded from a rather sloppy defeat on Friday night by gutting out a win on Saturday thanks to Grae Kessinger’s RBI double in the ninth and Parker Caracci corralling the final three outs, and then exploding for 10 runs on Sunday in game in which the top of the lineup dominated.

Here are four thoughts to mull over from the weekend.

  1. Doug Nikhazy appears to have rectified Rebels’ Saturday woes

Nikhazy didn’t have his best stuff on Saturday, but was able to churn out 5.2 innings, yielding three runs on five hits with six strikeouts and five walks. The freshman lefty struggled with his command, but slipped out of a pair of dicey situations and averted total disaster in the fourth when the Razorbacks plated three runs on a pair of homers. Twice did Nikhazy strand multiple runners and he responded from the three-run fourth with a perfect fifth inning. 

In four starts this season, Nikhazy has gone at least five innings every time. That’s two SEC starts and then two non-conference starts against East Carolina and Louisville — both ranked opponents. He has a composure about him that shows in adverse circumstances. He doesn’t get overwhelmed by the moment and always seems to pitch within himself. It appears, at least to this point that the Rebels have found a pretty formidable one-two punch in Nikhazy and Will Ethridge. What happens on Sunday remains to be seen, but that is a much tamer fix than futility from your Saturday guy.

2. Cole Zabowski had a weekend

In a lineup that has at times lacked consistency, Cole Zabowski has been the lone constant. The junior went 7-for-13 this weekend with 6 RBIs. He is generating impactful at bats regularly. He drove in a run in each game, including a 4-RBI day on Sunday. Ole Miss doesn’t win Sunday without Zabowski. 

A question that is often posed regarding this team is ‘what is wrong with the offense?’ Well, there hasn’t really been anything wrong with it, per say. But it hasn’t been as consistently productive as advertised at times this season. Thomas Dillard got off to a bit of slow start to SEC play and Tyler Keenan had a sluggish stretch towards the end of non-conference play. Ole Miss has missed the consistency Will Golsan and Nick Fortes offered a year ago. Two or three bats as consistent as those two in a lineup can mask short-term struggles elsewhere. That is why Zabowski is so invaluable to this team in the middle of the lineup.  He’s now hitting .327 with five home runs and 25 RBI. As Dillard and Keenan’s production continues to climb, the middle of this lineup appears to be hardening into arduous challenge for opposing pitchers that most thought it would be coming into the year.

3. Tyler Myers has been brilliant in relief

Sunday’s finale appeared to be headed towards a slugfest as neither starting pitcher fared well. Myers entered a 5-5 game in the fifth, trying to stifle an Arkansas lineup that had scored five runs in the previous two innings. The right-hander proceeded to throw four scoreless frames, surrendering just two hits on his way to his first career save. Myers has now thrown 10 connective scoreless innings with just four hits allowed spanning three outings. 

For a bullpen that has largely been good, but has been thinned out a little with inconsistency from a couple of pieces, Myers has been really good and will presumably be handed a heavier workload as this team gets deeper in to SEC play. Myers has proved he can eat innings in long relief, like he did Sunday and has the stuff to get key outs in high leverage situations. He is developing into a crucial and versatile piece for this bullpen. Myers’ appearance against Memphis in the midweek was his first outing since March 16. I would venture to say he does not go 10 days without pitching again this season.

4. An efficient lineup

Some of Ole Miss’ struggles though the early part of this season stemmed from its inability to settle into a regular lineup with a couple of regular variations based on pitching match ups. With so many moving parts in the outfield and at designated hitter, Mike Bianco has had to tinker with this lineup for longer than he would’ve liked, and perhaps a lot more than he would’ve liked. 

On Sunday, he batted Ryan Olenek in the leadoff slot, an unconventional move given Bianco’s tendencies, but one that makes a ton of sense considering Olenek entered the day boasting a . .464 OBP and a .389 average. Olenek has never been known as a guy that will walk a lot, primarily because of his aggressive approach at the plate that is sometimes aggressive to a fault. But Olenek’s on-base percentage speaks for itself and he has already walked nine times this year, which is just two away from the most in any of his three previous seasons at Ole Miss. The point is that he is seeing more pitches even if he isn’t prone to walk at the rate of a typical leadoff hitter. 

The move worked masterfully with Kessinger, Keenan, Dillard and Zabowski behind him. One through five in the Ole Miss lineup went a cool 11-for-22 on the day with 8 RBI. Olenek got on base four times with two hits, a walk and got hit by a pitch. As this lineup begins to hit its stride, Olenek in the leadoff spot could potentially be a drastically productive move. It fits well given what is behind him and takes a little pressure of Grae Kessinger, who has primarily hit leadoff throughout his career. 

This was series win for this team considering it has Florida, Auburn and Mississippi State three of the next four weeks. The Rebels are 5-4 in league play. As alarming as the first two weekends were in terms of the pulse of this team, taking two wins on the road against a top 10 opponent went a long way to rectify a missed opportunity or two in the first two weekends of SEC play.

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