There’s never a bad time or a bad way to end a five-game SEC losing streak.
That’s what the Rebels did Sunday with an 8-5 win at Mississippi State. Ole Miss dropped the SEC series against its in-state rival for the first time since 2012.
Ole Miss had not been swept by MSU since 2003 and had not been swept in back-to-back SEC series since 2002.
Games four and five in the five-game skid were, like the games against South Carolina, not entirely competitive.
The Rebels dropped the series opener only 3-1. The Bulldogs’ third run was somewhat debatable after Ole Miss photographer Josh McCoy circulated a photo that appeared to show catcher Henri Lartigue making the tag before the runner reached the plate. I never saw a replay of that, but I’m told the runner had already touched the plate.
Be that as it may, one additional run was all MSU needed to win that game. The Rebels were getting nothing done against MSU starter Dakota Hudson, a projected first-round pick, who threw a nine-inning complete game four-hitter.
Ole Miss scored a run in the first with the help of an HBP and an error. In short, the Rebels took advantage of opponent mistakes.
They took advantage of mistakes again when they had multiple run innings in the fifth and ninth in Sunday’s win. Ryan Olenek and Tate Blackman both scored on a Colby Bortles one-out single. Olenek had reached when hit by a pitch, and Blackman had reached on an error.
In the ninth JB Woodman walked and Olenek was again hit by a pitch. Both scored on a two-out single by Lartigue.
Timely hitting, yes. That’s been a theme of this team when it has been playing better on offense. But the Rebels can’t rely on pitching mistakes to get base runners and score runs.
They weren’t getting those mistakes from Hudson and Austin Sexton – who also pitched a four-hit complete game – in the first two games of the series.
Going into Saturday’s game the Rebels had a faced a pitcher ranked in the top six in the SEC in ERA in each of the four previous losses.
That wasn’t the case with Sexton. He’s been good but not outstanding.
And that doesn’t really matter. Someone is going to win the SEC overall, someone is going to win the West. Whoever does that is going to have figure out a way to hit and score against good pitching, because every team in the SEC has at least one very good arm, and most will have two.
Mike Bianco said after Saturday’s 6-2 loss that his team had too many “non-competitive” at-bats.
The Rebels were much more competitive on Sunday, but by then MSU pitching was far more suspect. MSU coach John Cohen used six pitchers in the game.
Even so, Ole Miss scored its eight runs on only 10 hits as it took advantage of opportunities provided by those six pitchers.
In its only win in the series Ole Miss was out-hit 11-10.
You can’t wait until the third game in an SEC series to hit and score.
Offense wasn’t the only hole in the boat.
Brady Bramlett bounced back from a poor start against South Carolina in Game 1 against MSU. He didn’t pitch six innings – a streak that’s now reached 12 games for Ole Miss weekend starters – but when Bramlett left the game it was more about Bianco just wanting the MSU lineup to see something different.
For Bramlett, the fifth inning started when he gave up a bunt single. What followed was a stolen base and a fly out that moved the runner to third with one out. Bramlett then went 2-2 against Reid Humphreys, who sat back and waited on an off-speed pitch and lofted it into left field.
Bianco went to Will Stokes after that for what turned out to be the first of two good outings on the weekend for Stokes.
But it was a much better night for Bramlett.
Stokes gave up an unearned run Friday but was hitless for 2 2-3 innings. He pitched the ninth on Sunday, allowing one hit but no runs with four batters faced.
Brady Feigl and Wyatt Short also had long and strong relief appearances over the weekend.
Feigl gave up two runs over 5 1-3 innings, but had thrown 4 1-3 scoreless innings leading into the seventh when he got a leadoff ground ball out before giving up two runs on four straight hits.
Short was also strong before tiring. He gave up seven hits and three runs over four innings, but had thrown three scoreless innings with just two hits before the seventh.
Beyond Bramlett, starting pitching was weak.
Chad Smith went 1 1-3 on Saturday with five hits and four runs, all earned.
Sean Johnson, after a week of rest for the elbow, gave up three hits, two runs, both earned, and three walks in three innings.
The pattern for the season is holding true. The bullpen is very good, the weekend starting suspect.
We talked before the season about the risk involved in counting on two juco transfers. Yes, Johnson is two years from juco but his first year at Ole Miss was all about Tommy John surgery and rehab.
The fact is, there are multiple holes in the boat right now. You hope hitting gets better, but you can’t wave a magic wand and fix it mid-season. You can, however, make pitching moves.
We’ll see if Bianco opts to do that. The Rebels face a tough mid-week task against Southern Miss Tuesday night in Pearl. They’re back home against Arkansas this weekend.