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Seven thoughts on Ole Miss’ series loss to Kentucky

  1. The Rebels left a small village on the base path

Ole Miss left 16 runners on base in the two games. That dog will not hunt, particularly considering Kentucky threw projected first round pick Zack Thompson in the finale. The Rebels made Thompson sweat a couple of times, but couldn’t do any real damage.

“Two left-handed starters that we did not do a good job with,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “You can see why Thompson is a first rounder. But the toughest thing was that we didn’t do much when we had opportunities today. They did.”

Some of it was poor luck. Cooper Johnson stepped into the box with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning of the series finale. Ole Miss trailed 4-2 and Johnson had a chance to tie the game or win it on a single swing. He crushed a ball right at Kentucky second baseman Zeke Lewis, who was shaded up the middle. The Rebels hit a couple of balls hard that died in left field on a day in which the baseball did not carry well. But stranding 16 runners over 14 innings of baseball is not a recipe for success. Ole Miss had just six hits in game three and three of those belonged to Grae Kessinger. The team plated just three runs combined in the two games. 

  1. Gunnar Hoglund showed his breaking ball, a lot

If you are looking for a silver lining in what was an underwhelming day for the Rebels, Hoglund striking out eight batters is certainly an intriguing sign for Ole Miss. He threw his curveball for strikes. That is a significant development considering a large portion of the freshman’s struggles have been caused by being too fastball reliant and not being comfortable with his secondary stuff. The breaking ball hasn’t been there all year for Hoglund and the change up has produced mixed results.

Hoglund made a costly mistake with an 0-2 changeup that hung up in the zone and T.J. Collett — who homered twice on the day and gave the Rebels fits — demolished it over the wall in right-center field. Hoglund’s learned some tough lessons this year in his first go around in the SEC, one of them being that hitters will crush mistakes. But he looked pretty good for most of his outing on Sunday. A rocky start to the 4th prompted him being pulled for Austin Miller, but the eight strikeouts is significant as the Rebels try to find an answer on the mound on Sundays. You can bet on Hoglund being out there in the finale vs Auburn next weekend.

3. Doubleheaders have not been kind to Ole Miss

Since 2011, the Rebels are 4-12 in seven-inning double headers and two of those wins are against Grambling. That is a statistic that I watched my good friend and numbers savant, Chase Parham, spend 20 minutes digging up in the media guide. It is also a statistic that doesn’t necessarily have a rhyme or reason to it. But the Rebels will be perfectly happy not seeing another one in the 2019 season.

“It was one of those weird days with the two seven innings game,” Thomas Dillard said. “It was a rainy day, but that is no excuse. We have to be better. There is no excuse for it.”

Seven innings against a pitcher the caliber of Thompson is a tough task. The sense of urgency at the plate increases. For example, Ole Miss loaded the bases in the seventh when the Wildcats went to the pen after Thompson, but instead of having three innings to crack the relievers, they only had one.

4. Doug Nikhazy was not good

Nikhazy gave up four runs on six hits in 3.2 innings. The bulk of the damage came on a Collett homer in the second and a two-run shot from Dalton Reed in the fourth. If you’ve watched Ole Miss Baseball this season, a fascinating question to pose is where would this team be without Nikhazy’s services? He’s stabilized the rotation and been good all year. But he struggled mighty on Sunday. That will happen. Bad outings happen. But what today did was highlight the slim margin for error Ole Miss has with Sunday being such a mystery. If Ethridge or Nikhazy aren’t sharp, a thin bullpen is taxed earlier in the series. Tyler Myers was needed in game two instead of game three.

One can make the argument that Hoglund’s outing as a whole could be perceived as encouraging, but until the Rebels find some sense of stability on Sundays, the pressure on Nikhazy and Ethridge to be dominant and go deep into games is greater.

5. Grae Kessinger is carrying the top of the lineup

Kessinger had a four-hit game on Friday and had three hits the finale. He is hitting .452 in SEC play, slugging at a .629 clip and possesses an OPS 1.143. That dog will hunt. Since being moved out of the leadoff spot, Kessinger is seeing better pitches to hit. He’s rid of the additional responsibilities that often accompany hitting in the leadoff spot and can focus on simply driving the baseball. 

With Ryan Olenek only hitting .268 in SEC play, Tyler Keenan at .241 and Thomas Dillard being a bit inconsistent, Kessinger has become the Rebels’ most consistently productive hitter at the top of the lineup. A lot was made of his early season struggles, but the guy has proven he can hit, even against elite pitching.

6. Ryan Olenek injured

In the fifth inning of the Rebels’ game three loss, Olenek crashed into the wall tracking what ended up being an RBI double from Austin Schultz and injured what appeared to be his right hip. Bianco did not offer much of an update after the game, but this comes after he was hit in the left hip in the series finale over Florida. He did not play in Tuesday’s game against Southern Miss because of it.

Olenek exited the game, but was able to walk to the dugout without much assistance. The severity of the injury is not known, obviously, but it is certainly something to monitor going forward as the center fielder has been banged up over the last week. 

7. What is to make of this team?

Ole Miss is 9-6 at the halfway point of SEC play. That is their best mark at the halfway mark since 2014 (that statistic is again brought to you by Parham. The guy is a real grinder, media guide rat you could say). Mike Bianco’s teams typically play better baseball in the second half of the SEC slate. The Rebels haven’t been better than 9-6 at the halfway point since 2004. 

But what is to make of this team? The competition undoubtedly steepens with series against Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU and Tennessee to close out the year. The offense has produced at an elite clip over the last 10 games, but the pitching behind Ethridge has been spotty. Nikhazy has been consistently good until Sunday, but finding a third starter option remains a mystery and outside of Tyler Myers, Austin Miller and Parker Caracci, the bullpen is a bit of an unsolved puzzle in its own right. 

“We are not worried about who we play,” Dillard said. “We know we have talent. We just have to go out and play our game. Today, we did not do that.”

This team is going to hit. But does it have enough in the tank from a pitching standpoint? Nikhazy and Ethridge are a solid 1-2 punch, but what do the Rebels do for a third starter? Framing the question this way may shed some light as far as a solution: Hypothetically, who does Ole Miss give the baseball to in game three of a regional, whether its season is on the line or it is in the winner’s bracket trying to avoid an elimination game. I am riding or dying with Tyler Myers. But his value out of the bullpen is immense and it is understandable why Bianco has not plucked him out of the pen and into the rotation yet. But when it comes down to it, what are the other options? Zack Phillips has not inspired confidence. Houston Roth has not looked like himself and Gunnar Hoglund has been inconsistent. Finding a decent third option and trying to muster some semblance of depth in the bullpen are the two most pressing issues this team faces heading into the back half of the season.

Is this team a national seed or a two-seed in someone else’s regional? If you shared the outcome with me right now, I would believe either one. The second half of this season will be fascinating either way. 

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