Unable to cobble together productive at-bats when presented with opportunities late in the game, Ole Miss was saddled with a 2-0 loss to Mississippi State on Friday evening in a game that featured both rain and fog, the latter of which chased both starting pitchers.
Opportunties were few and far between against Bulldog starter Ethan Small —one of the finest pitchers in the college baseball — and his successor, Jared Liebelt. But when those chances came, the Rebels squandered them. Four times an Ole Miss hitter came to the plate with at least one runner in scoring position. Three times that Ole Miss hitter struck out and the fourth resulted in a Jacob Adams ground ball that induced an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play in the eighth.
Th penultimate inning is when Ole Miss had its best chance to plate a run. Trailing 2-0 and having collected just four hits to that point, Cole Zabowski and Kevin Graham singled to begin the bottom of the eighth. Freshman second baseman Justin Bench, who has missed the last two months with a broken hand and drew his first career start, attempted to lay down a sacrifice bunt. The first pitch wizzed by a foot wide of the plate. Bench recoiled but the pitch was called a strike anyway. Bench struck out a couple of pitches later after bunting two balls foul.
“We had a lot of young guys in the lineup at the bottom,” Bianco said. “We were trying to figure out that if it were a bunt situation, we could leave Bench in there. We were going to bat Adams and (Chase) Cockrell to let another left-hander see Liebelt. We left Justin in there. Just a tough situation for a freshman that hasn’t been out there long.”
Adams hit into the inning-ending double play ball after Bench struck out. The loss handed Will Ethridge a worse fate than he deserved. Ethridge allowed two runs on six hits in six innings. A 32-minute fog delay in the top of the seventh helped contribute to Ethridge’s exit from the game. The delay ousted Small as well, a fortunate break for the Rebels at that point. Ethridge struck out four and walked two.
Mississippi State was more opportunistic than Ole Miss on this night. The two runs came on a pair of two-out hits from Tanner Allen. The first was an RBI double into the right-center gap in the third and the second a base hit up the middle in fifth inning. Both came in full counts.
“Both teams pitched it really well,” Bianco said. “It came down to a couple key at bats. Allen had two really huge hits for them. We had a couple of opportunities and did not cash in.”
Small issued the Rebels a healthy diet of four-seam fastballs that were not overwhelming from a velocity standpoint, but possessed a lot of life and a high spin rate. Ole Miss did not see that pitch well. Small struck out 10 hitters in six innings. The Rebels’ best opportunity to cash in on Small came in the fourth inning when Grae Kessinger reached on an infield single and Tyler Keenan drew a walk. Small escaped by fanning Thomas Dillard and Cooper Johnson. Kessinger had two of the team’s six hits.
Liebelt finished the remainder of the work left behind by Small. They each scattered three hits.
Houston Roth hurled three innings of two-hit, scoreless relief to keep Ole Miss at arm’s length. Roth has not allowed a run in five of his last six outings. In a season in which the junior has been plagued with inconsistency and battled a shoulder injury, he is rounding into form and pitching better than he has at any point this year.
“He is finally healthy I think,” Bianco said. “His fastball has a little more life and the breaking ball is sharper. You can see the confidence in him.”
Ole Miss was without center fielder Ryan Olenek in this game due to an illness. Bianco did not seem optimistic about Olenek’s status for the remainder of the weekend, but did not rule Olenek out either. He was not at the ballpark on Friday.
This game was defined by one team maximizing its opportunities and the other failing to do so. It resulted in Ole Miss’ first shutout loss since May 18, 2018. Game two is slated for 6:00 P.M. on Saturday.
Photo by Petre Thomas/Ole Miss Athletics