The inconsistency of Ole Miss’ starting pitching has plagued it through the early part of the 2019 season and inflicted increased stress in other areas in the process. Wednesday’s 10-8 loss at Louisville was evidence of that.
The Rebels dropped both games of its final midweek series before SEC play.
Right-hander Houston Roth, pitching for the first time in 12 days and trying to overcome the lingering effects of a sprained AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder, did not make it out of the first inning. His offense supplied him with a 2-0 lead before he threw a pitch. That quickly evaporated as Roth labored. He gave up a one-out double to Tyler Fitzgerald, hit Logan Wyatt, balked to move them up each up a base and then hit Zach Britton to load the bases.
Two singles and a Cole Zabowski error later, Roth’s day came to a premature close, charged with five runs, three of those earned, on four hits with a strikeout.
“We have to pitch better to at the beginning of the game and get more length out of the starters,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “It has been our achilles heel.”
Opponents have scored 18 first inning runs against the Rebels this season and a total of 38 in the first three innings through 17 games. The starters aren’t going long enough in games. The pitching staff has just two quality starts. Roth didn’t have good command. Even through that,
He had a couple of opportunities to make a pitch to get off the field and was unable to. The Zabowski error didn’t help.
“I think it was just a day where we didn’t the big pitch to get off the field,” catcher Cooper Johnson said. “But credit to the pitchers, they did make some big pitches and we didn’t make the big play to get off the field. Making big pitches and plays to get off the field is crucial and we just didn’t do that today.
“It has kind of been our kryptonite, that first inning.”
The slow starts make it more difficult for the offense to combat pressing at the plate. Ole Miss trailed in this game 10-3 at one point and 8-2 after three innings. Stringing together quality at bats feels less consequential when so many are needed consecutively to crawl back into the game.
“It definitely changes the confidence and the mindset of the at bats,” Johnson said. “Not so much if it is a two or three run deficit, but five, six or seven runs down, it definitely feels like no matter what you do, you aren’t making a dent. Then again, you have to clear that mindset. Thinking base runners, winning pitches and getting base runners, moving guys around and chipping away.”
That isn’t to say the offense is absent of blame in this particular loss. It stranded 11 runners through eight innings. Louisville walked 13 batters and hit a man, and Ole Miss had just three runs to show for it through seven innings. The Rebels produced late, scoring two in the eighth on a Tyler Keenan 2-RBI base hit and three more in the ninth thanks to home runs from Johnson and Tim Elko. But the seven-run hole was too large to climb out of.
Johnson was 2-for-5 with a pair of RBI. Cole Zabowski had two hits as well.
“You’ll look back at the first inning with us scoring two and them scoring five, with that being the difference in the game,” Bianco said. “But there were eight more innings to be played. Truthfully, they walked 13 batters and hit a guy. That is tough to win a game, unless you make some pitches when it counts, make some plays to get off the field and then get some big hits. We didn’t pitch well either. Both teams pitched poorly. We just didn’t make plays to get off the field.”
Ole Miss now heads into conference play with a 12-5 record. It hosts Alabama this weekend. The Rebels’ number one concern is undoubtedly how to get more length out of its starters. Their only two quality starts have come in the last week with Zack Phillips on Saturday against UAB and Doug Nikhazy going six innings in a loss to Louisville on Tuesday. Even in those outings, both had to overcome rocky starts in the early innings. The two quality starts is misguided to some degree. Will Ethridge has been good and hasn’t been stretched out as long as he could have been. But the larger point is that Ole Miss has to find a way to get more out of its starting pitching behind Ethridge. It would benefit from doing so quickly with SEC play arriving.
“I think it is being ready when we step on the field,” Johnson said. “Wanting the ball. Wanting to fill up the zone. Not walking guys. Pitchers are going to make his pitch and fielders are going to make the play. That is all we can focus on. A lot of times I think guys get sped up. We need to focus on filling it up. We have here and there, but we need get more cojnssirent on the mound.”
Photo credit: Jermaine Bibb — Louisville Athletics