Ole Miss Baseball begins four-game road trip to close regular season

Ole Miss finds itself in a rather precarious position after being swept by Mississippi State last weekend. In a matter of three days, the idea of June baseball in Oxford went from a real possibility on the verge of coming to fruition, to becoming a bit of a long shot.

This team is perplexing to cover  — and in a lot of ways fascinating to cover— and frustrating to fans. Call it Jekyll and Hyde, whatever you like, there have been so many constantly moving parts that this team has struggled to find consistent success.

With that being said, there are four games left in the regular season. The Rebels travel to Jonesboro Tuesday night for a midweek game at Arkansas State and then head to Knoxville to play three at Tennessee. Here are some things to watch as this team barrels down the homestretch of the season.

1.Ryan OIenek’s health

Ryan Olenek missed the State series with a virus so violent he was bed ridden for four days. Olenek said the symptoms of the virus began to show at LSU when he broke out in a rash. He still felt fine so he chalked the rash up to something in the laundry detergent. Flue-like symptoms worsened last week leading up to the Mississippi State series. Olenek was unable to swallow and spat in a bottle for two days and unable to get out of bed for four days.  Olenek was particularly upset about missing his graduation weekend and his final weekend at Swayze field, and understandably so.

“A lot of things went into this weekend,” Olenek said. “I was supposed to graduate this weekend. A lot of memories that I missed, and I wasn’t there for my team. I didn’t get to play my last series, not to make it about me, but as an Ole Miss Rebel at Swayze, that sucks. I felt like I let a lot of people down which hurts pretty bad.

“A lot of people came into town, a lot of family members, my whole family and my girlfriend’s family. A lot of people paid a lot of money to be here, and some of them didn’t have the money to do that. Some of my family members didn’t, yet they were here. I didn’t get to do some of the things that you do this whole thing for. Four years of school and missed walking, missed being honored as a senior and missed doing a lot of stuff. I Missed playing against Mississippi State. It was a huge weekend. I missed a lot of things. It sucks.”

Olenek was back at practice on Monday and head coach Mike Bianco said Olenek wouldn’t have any limitations. Ole Miss needs Olenek’s bat and perhaps the proverbial spark that comes with his presence more so than anything. Olenek plays with a great deal of energy and passion, something that was missing over the weekend.

2. What to make of the bullpen woes?

Ole Miss lost this series primarily because of its bullpen. It was unable to preserve a 4-2 lead on Saturday after Doug Nikhazy exited the game in the sixth inning, and it completely came unglued in in the fourth inning of Sunday’s game that saw the Bulldogs plate nine runs with two outs. Austin Miller and Parker Caracci got hit hard on Saturday, and Zack Phillips and Max Cioffi were the primary victims in the nine-run fourth inning on Sunday in relief of Gunnar Hoglund.

“Usually, we are good getting the last six to nine outs and we weren’t,” Bianco said. “We can make excuses and say it was raining, but we have to fight through that.”

Bianco has struggled all year to find bullpen arms he can trust beyond three guys. Caracci, Miller and Tyler Myers have pretty much comprised a three-deep bullpen for a lot of year. Houston Roth has been very good in his last six outings and has pitched well in the second half of the SEC season. But Myers has faded, having not produced a scoreless outing since April 9, Cioffi has not been good for a lot of the year and Caracci has been ineffective his last two times out of the pen. Miller was a bit of an anomaly. He struggled to find his curveball grip in rainy conditions Saturday and rectified his struggles with three innings of one-hit, shutout ball on Sunday. But Caracci’s struggles are definitely a concern, as is the razor thin margin for error the bullpen is currently working with.

“Miller came off the field in the first or second inning of his appearance on Sunday and said he figured out his curveball and that he was dropping his arm,” Bianco said. “Once he said that, he was right. His next inning was much sharper. He has been really good for us. You hate to get too high or low on one outing. Parker, on the other hand, that is a situation where he went down in the seventh sand wasn’t supposed to pitch until the eighth. We rushed him in there in the rain and he got beat up a little bit there. But Parker can handle it. I try not to get too up or down on one particular outing. He has pitched well for us.”

Whether or not there is legitimate cause for concern with Miller and Caracci, the lack of depth is definitely worrisome and Ole Mis will struggle to survive in the postseason without it.

3. What’s the hosting path?

Given the club’s most recent showing this feels premature, and frankly, a little silly to address, but Ole Miss still has a chance. Its RPI currently sits at 28 and a win at Arkansas State on Tuesday would likely push it to 25, according to Warren Nolan. 

If Ole Miss heads into the weekend with a 25 RPI, winning two games at Tennessee would be a requirement to have any sort of realistic chance to host. A lot of things outside of Ole Miss’ control still have to play out, making this an unclear and unfinished picture. But two wins at Tennessee gets the Rebels within earshot of the conversation. A sweep at Tennessee would catapult the Rebels firmly inside in the hosting discussion. Simply put, two wins at Tennessee would help but a relatively deep run in Hoover at the SEC Tournament will likely be needed. Three wins and most of the work is done, though winning a game in Hoover would help immensely. One win and the Rebels can go ahead and start packing for a June road trip.