Ten games remain in the 2019 regular season and Ole Miss has officially entered the homestretch as it tries to keep pace with Arkansas in the SEC West, as well as strengthen its case as a regional host.
Where will Ole Miss end up? Playing June baseball in Oxford? A two seed in someone else’s regional? Here are four thoughts to ponder as Ole Miss begins a series with LSU on Friday.
- What roles do Hoglund and Phillips transition into?
After a 5-3 loss to Southern Miss in Hattiesburg on Wednesday night, Ole Miss only has one more midweek game remaining — a bout with Arkansas State on the final Tuesday of the regular season. Zack Phillips entered Wednesday’s start with a 2.89 ERA and a 0.8- WHIP in his last four starts. The junior lefty was serviceable in four innings, allowing three runs on five hits with three strikeouts and no walks. But he fell victim to hard some hard contact and made a couple of mistakes up the zone, two things that have greatly contributed to Phillips struggles this season.
Gunnar Hoglund turned in his best outing in an Ole Miss uniform last weekend in a win over Texas A&M. The freshman went six innings, surrendered two runs and scattered five hits with three strikeouts and no walks. Hoglund has shown flashes of brilliance in a freshman year that’s been littered with hard lessons. Was last week a turning point? Can Hoglund provide the length at the back end of the rotation that Ole Miss has been missing? Make no mistake, the Rebels are going to need both Phillips and Hoglund to be productive in the postseason whether it is as a starter or out of the bullpen.
The likeliest scenario seems to be that Phillips will come out of the bullpen after the Rebels play their last midweek game. The third starter slot appears to be Hoglund’s job at the moment— though it is worth noting Ole Miss went TBA on Sunday this weekend against LSU — but it is entirely possible Phillips could slide into this role if Hoglund begins to struggle again. Hoglund’s leash will be short. Which one of these two sticks as a starter and which one comes out of the bullpen will be interesting to watch play out.
2. Bullpen depth?
The Ole Miss bullpen has been spread thin this season. Most of that is due to a lack of depth. Outside of Austin Miller and Tyler Myers, head coach Mike Bianco has had trouble finding guys he can trust to bridge the game to Parker Caracci on the back end. Max Cioffi has waffled from serviceable to ineffective and Houston Roth has been unable to find any semblance of consistency. Roth pitched two scoreless innings in the loss to the Golden Eagles. Cioffi relieved him and did not record an out for the second straight appearance.
Ole Miss is going to have a tough time getting by with a two-headed monster in front of Caracci in the bullpen. Its margin for error is small and it would greatly benefit from having another reliable arm or two to lean on, particularly once the postseason begins. Will Cioffi or Roth be consistent enough to provide that? Could Phillips or Hoglund pad the depth? Bianco has made it work with Myers and Miller to this point but is in need of reinforcements.
3. How many wins to host?
Ole Miss has made this a more difficult question to answer with its struggles in non-conference/midweek games. The Rebels are 17-8 in non-SEC games this year, two losses beyond the general six-loss threshold that generally determines whether or not a team’s non-conference record is a blemish on its resume. The Rebels currently sit at 22 in the RPI. In order to have a realistic chance of hosting a regional, the RPI will probably need to be 15 or better.
How many wins does that translate to? If Ole Miss is able to finish with 18 SEC wins and does not have a hiccup against Arkansas State in the final midweek game, it should feel ok about its hosting case regardless of what happens at the SEC Tournament in Hoover. Is that a guarantee? No, far from it. It could potentially take 19 wins given some of the pitfalls the Rebels have suffered in midweek games. It really just depends on where the RPI lands at the end of this 10-game stretch.
Let’s put it this way: Ole Miss currently sits at 13-8 in the SEC, two games back of Arkansas for first in the West. If the Rebels win each of their next three series against LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee, it will be a host. That would be a mark of 19-12 or better. If it wins two of the three series and doesn’t get swept in the lone series loss, it should still feel pretty good at 18-12. Anything worse than that and the team will have tear through the SEC Tournament in Hoover to have any prayer of hosting a regional.
4. End a 37 year drought?
Ole Miss begins a three game series in Baton Rouge on Friday night, a place where the program has not won a series since 1982. LSU has slogged through a rash of injuries this season both on the pitching staff and in the field.
The Tigers also sit at 13-8 and are similar to Ole Miss in the sense that it has functioned at a more than serviceable level despite a lot of moving and sputtering parts. The Tigers will be without freshman start Cole Henry, who will miss a second consecutive start with an elbow injury. Henry was set to become LSU’s Friday night guy last week at Alabama, sliding Zack Hess to the bullpen. But that move was put on hold due to Henry missing a start. LSU skipper Paul Mainieri elected to pull the trigger on the Hess move to the pen even with Henry out again this weekend.
Ole Miss should have the advantage on the mound Friday night with LSU starting Ma’khail Hilliard in place of Henry. With that said, Hilliard threw seven innings of one-run ball in Oxford last year in an LSU win. Hilliard has a hammer of a breaking ball and when he is commanding it well, is a difficult match up. Hilliard has only started twice in 2019, but has come out of the bullpen 11 times, allowing 15 earned runs in 29.1 innings.
Saturday is essentially as wash with Walker and Nikhazy and one would have to give LSU an edge on Sunday given how inconsistent Hoglund has been. Point being: Ole Miss better take advantage of LSU being without Henry on Friday. The Tigers have one of the better and deeper bullpens in the SEC and Ole Miss is going to have to get a better showing from its offense than the five-hit performance against Southern Miss on Wednesday.
Even with LSU being healthier in the field than it has been in a month or so, the Rebels are catching a bit of a vulnerable tiger team without one starter and another transitioning to a new role in the pen. While this shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as an elimination series with regards to the hosting conversation between these two teams, the winner will have a much clearer path to hosting and the loser will have its work cut out for it.
First pitch on Friday is slated for 7 P.M.