Two weeks ago, the idea of June baseball in Oxford seemed far-fetched at best and, perhaps more realistically, next to impossible. After a six-day run at the SEC Tournament that changed the trajectory of Ole Miss’ season, it is now hosting a regional and its postseason path is a bit less daunting than it once projected to be.
Here are four thoughts on how the Rebels will navigate the Oxford Regional.
- Win or lose, a left-hander awaits Saturday
Both Clemson and Illinois announced on Tuesday it will hold its respective aces out of the opening game. The Tigers are throwing lefty Jacob Hennessy in game one and the Illini are countering with right-hander Ty Weber. Illinois will likely go with lefty Andy Fisher in game two, who boasts a .206 opponent batting average with 89 strikeouts and 30 walks this year. Fisher doesn’t overwhelm with velocity and fits the profile of the left-handed thumber that has plagued Ole Miss in the past. He’s 85-87 with the fastball with a breaking ball and a changeup.
Clemson will most likely hurl Mat Clark in its second game, whose velocity is a tick up from Fisher, though will still hover around 87-88 mph.
Ole Miss is slashing .240/.367/.327 as a team against left-handers this season. You can see why both clubs are holding their respective guys out of the opening game. Win or lose, the Rebels will see a left-hander in game two, likely against Doug Nikhazy. Both, in a lot of ways, are somewhat comparable East Carolina left-hander Jake Kuchmaner, who took a no-hit bid to the ninth inning in a win in Oxford in February. Neither are power arms and the Rebels will directly face the profile that has given the club fits at times this season.
2. The Rebels played loose in Hoover. How can they carry over that mentality?
Ole Miss arrived in Hoover for the SEC Tournament as a team lacking a pulse and waiting to be put out of its misery. It left having reinvented itself and playing arguably its best baseball of the 2019 season. The Rebels played loose in Hoover. Mike Bianco was self-deprecating. The dugout was lively and for the lack of a better cliche, the Rebels simply let it fly and lived with the results. Those results are quite good as the team wound up in the championship game and a one-run loss away from repeating as SEC Champions.
“That tournament mindset kind of helped us,” Thomas Dillard said. “We did play loose. Our dugout had a little bit more fun. We got the timely hit and the big out when we needed that.”
How does Ole Miss bring that back to Swayze?
“Just take pressure a little off of ourselves,” Dillard said. “We have a really talented team and we have confidence. We do not need to try to press too much.”
Fair or unfair, a narrative has sprouted that this program often plays tight when the pressure is at its peak. There is no 50-win Tennessee Tech club coming in this year, but Jacksonville State boasts an 89 RPI as the four seed and has a pair of wins over SEC teams this season in six games. Illinois has some pitching depth and Clemson is a slumping, albeit capable, three seed. If Ole Miss plays well, it will advance through this regional. It possesses the most talent and the most pitching depth. But how will the Rebels react when adversity strikes or they find themselves tied in the waning innings of an elimination game? If Hoover is any indication, they’ll handle it better than previous teams.
Does last year’s disappointment drive this club?
“It doesn’t drive me,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “Obviously that was disappointing. But that is why I have a great job. Every year, you get a different club. Even with a lot of returners it is different. They are older and wiser. Hopefully they are better players. But I know it drives some people. I am sure it drives a lot of those guys in the locker room.”
3. How will Ole Miss set its rotation?
It is far from uncommon to see No. 1 seeds hold their ace when facing a four seed.
Given Jacksonville’s State’s RPI and overall resume, it is highly doubtful Mike Bianco would do this for the reasons most host teams do — to win a game against inferior competition and save the club’s thoroughbred until game two against, presumably, the second best team in the regional. However, Ole Miss is in a bit of a precarious position considering Will Ethridge threw 1.2 innings of relief in Sunday’s SEC Tournament Championship loss to Vanderbilt, after making a start on Tuesday and pitching the previous Thursday at Tennessee.
Ethridge threw 36 pitches on Sunday. Would it be shocking if Nikhazy or Hoglund started? I suppose not. But given this team’s last two results in regionals and what the Rebels could potentially have in front of it with the Iliini and Tigers holding their aces, it is most likely Bianco goes with his normal rotation and has Nikhazy throwing on Saturday.
4. Where does Phillips fit in?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ole Miss’ pitching chess match is how Zack Phillips fit into the equation? Hoglund is almost undoubtedly going to be the starter of the third game Ole Miss plays this weekend. So where does that leave Phillips? Is he completely off limits in case of a winner-take-all game that would be the fourth game of the weekend? Is he used in long relief if Hoglund or one of the other two pitchers struggle?
If you take out his Sunday start on three days rest against Vanderbilt, Phillips has pitched into the fifth inning in five of his last six starts and see the sixth inning in four of those. Phillips began the year as the Saturday starter and struggled mightily with command and often compounded mistakes en route to early exits. But he’s been a more than competent starter for the last two months and the way he’s used in this regional will be fascinating to watch.