Shortly after Ole Miss pummeled Florida, 16-4, on the front end of a double header to secure a series win, Mike Bianco challenged his team prior to the third game.
The Rebels had just devoured the Gators’ pitching staff for the second game in a row, totaling 28 runs on 37 hits through two games. Mailing in game three would’ve been understandable after being on the right said of a pair of thrashings.
“That’s such a mediocre attitude,” Bianco said. “To think we have two in the bag and it is okay if we lose this one. It is never okay. You only get 30 of these games.”
Ole Miss fell in an 8-0 hole as Houston Roth labored in the first three innings. The right-hander allowed four unearned runs on five hits with five strikeouts and a walk, a perplexing outing in the sense that he wasn’t bad, but not necessarily sharp either. Then, the rain came in the bottom of the fifth as the Rebels trailed 8-3. An hour-long delay followed, more temptation to wave the white flag and call it a weekend.
Instead, Ole Miss proceeded to score eight runs in the bottom of the fifth inning — seven after play resumed — to take a 10-8 lead, a blow that left a Florida pitching staff running on fumes, stumbling for the remainder of the game.
Parker Caracci entered with one out in the sixth, tasked with recording the last 11 outs and halting a slugfest. Caracci did precisely that, allowing just one hit and a walk in 3.2 shutout frames to secure the sweep. The All-American closer is beginning to gain a better feel for his secondary stuff and not leaning as heavily on his electric fastball to get by.
“I love having the ball in my hand,” Caracci said. “We’ve been working on the breaking ball a lot in the bullpen and are starting to get a better feel for it when I need to. It feels a lot better. It is sharper and harder.”
The eight-run comeback win in game three was a proverbial exclamation point for a team that appears to be hitting its stride after spinning its wheels for the first six weeks of the season. The offense is beginning to take shape, looking again like the 2018 version that terrorized SEC pitching. The Rebels plated 40 runs on 49 hits, tying a school record for runs in in an SEC series that was set in 1957 against when bats were made of lumber.
“The old saying that hitting is contagious is true,” Grae Kessinger said. “We showed that this weekend.”
Kessinger had eight hits on the weekend, including five in game two. He is now hitting .338 on the season. Bianco moved Ryan Olenek to the leadoff slot in the Sunday win at Arkansas and it has alleviated some pressure from Kessinger’s shoulders. He is swinging the bat more confidently, and truthfully, probably getting better pitches to hit. He looks more comfortable at the plate. The offense as a whole seems to be hitting its stride as the this team wades deeper in to league play, now 8-4 with a lowly Kentucky team coming to Oxford next weekend.
“We’ve played well the last two weeks,” Bianco said. “We have had eight weekends and only lost one weekend. If we swing it like this, and pitch in the clutch, we are going to be alright.”
In a lot of ways, game three portrayed both the potential and the current decibel level at which this lineup currently operating. Game three pitching remains an issue for this club. Gunnar Hoglund was ousted from the Sunday role and the Rebels didn’t get much length from Roth, whether it was Roth’s fault or the defense behind him. But an offense as potent as the Rebels’ can mask a lot of blemishes, like it did in this series finale. The Rebels dug out of an 8-0 hole in two innings and erased a six-run deficit in a matter of about 20 minutes.
“They’re tough to pitch to,” Doug Nikhazy said. “They weathered me to be able to go out and pitch against Florida.”
One of the reasons, offense aside, the Sunday starter issue isn’t as pressing is because of the emergence of the freshman Nikhazy. He tossed six innings of one-run ball in the game two win and has been a stabilizer for this team that struggled to find length from its starting pitching behind Will Ethridge. Nikhazy pitches with the composure of an upperclassmen and a four-pitch mix with a looping breaking ball and a sharp slider doesn’t hurt either.
“It just seemed like, everything we did, we couldn’t go wrong today,” Nikhazy said. “Our unwillingness to give up, we never had a doubt we were going to come back in game three.”
Pinpointing a turning point or an epiphany in a marathon of a baseball season is often a pointless exercise, but the Rebels have played much better baseball the last two weeks and the lineup it ran out in the Sunday win at Arkansas has seemingly made a world of difference. It took six weeks, but Ole Miss appears to be hitting its stride and is playing a noticeably different brand of baseball of late.
“We have pretty much done a 180,” Nikhazy said. “Our offense is doing work and our pitching is putting up zeroes and throwing strikes.”
Ole Miss now sits at 23-10 (8-4). With a struggling Kentucky team arriving in Oxford next weekend, the Rebels have a chance to continue their ascension and stockpile wins in an SEC West race that is proving to be a weekly dog fight.
Photo credit: Cam Brooks — Ole Miss Athletics