They’re still playing baseball in the Oxford Regional today though the home team is no longer part of the festivities.
I saw ESPN scroll a stat across the bottom of the screen Saturday night that said Ole Miss had become the first team to go 0-2 in in a home regional twice.
That is interesting, but the odds for that increase when you host regionals often, and this program has hosted quite few – seven of them – under Mike Bianco.
Ole Miss went 0-2 the first time it hosted, 2004. Tulane won that regional too, and might win this one.
In the postgame presser Saturday Bianco said his team played its heart out in the regional. He didn’t say it played well in losing two one-run games to lower-seeded foes.
The Rebels, I thought, played like the team they were predicted to be back in January. SEC coaches picked this team fifth in the West. Ultimately the Rebels finished fourth in the West and seventh overall, so the predictions weren’t far off. But Ole Miss was much closer to the top of the league than the bottom, and the success this team achieved – 43 wins capped by an impressive three straight in the SEC tournament – was far different than people expected.
Bianco quickly referenced that story line yesterday.
The fact is, however, that expectations change on the fly, and no one expected this team to lose the first two games in its regional even against what many considered the most challenging four-team field in the NCAA tournament.
For Ole Miss, what transpired in that field was the inconsistency that marked much of the season.
The Rebels hit .314 in their impressive SEC tournament run but just .222 in their regional. The middle of the lineup that carried Ole Miss in Hoover – Tate Blackman, J.B. Woodman, Henri Lartigue – went a combined 4-for-25 in the regional. That’s a .160 batting average if you’re scoring at home.
The bullpen will be scrutinized in the Rebels’ regional failure, but the hitting can’t be overlooked.
The bullpen, however, was what this team brought to the table. It was what carried this team all year long.
The very idea that Ole Miss could win 43 games with average starting pitching was impressive and points to a very good coaching job by Bianco this season. David Parkinson eventually settled down things as the No. 2 starter and finished with a 2.78 ERA in 68 innings, but no starter approached the level of dominance seen by one or more starters on teams that contend for Omaha.
A good coaching job is defined by doing more with less. Bianco took a team with no proven returning star power and won 43 games.
Yes, Errol Robinson was rated the SEC’s top shortstop going into the season, but he was a career .296 hitter in two previous seasons. Robinson improved defensively, but this team needed more help on offense for most of this season.
Woodman was an elite recruit for whom big things were expected. He hit .298 as a freshman, a solid start, and it was quite OK to remain in the statistical background as a freshman on a College World Series team filled with veterans.
Woodman hit .274 as a sophomore. His power numbers increased somewhat with seven home runs compared to two the previous season. Bianco took responsibility for the decreased batting average saying he tinkered with Woodman’s approach at the plate to try and produce more power.
Woodman had career highs this year with a .322 average, 14 home runs and 55 RBIs. It’s a good thing he did.
Blackman hit .322 this season and deserves credit for a big turnaround from his freshman season when he hit .197, a disappointing start for a national top 50 recruit.
The .322 average is really good, but in the college game outstanding hitters are hitting .350 and better.
The reality is this team had holes with its starting pitching and hitting and masked those with a great bullpen.
Bianco got contributions from a lot of different guys, many of them freshmen.
He had a sophomore and junior – Will Stokes and Wyatt Short – that he could count on late in games.
The Rebels amassed the remarkable stat late in May of being 38-0 when having a lead after six innings. However, the bullpen failed in the last four games.
In one of those, Short was able to hang on and get the final out against Vanderbilt in Hoover but only after the Commodores had shaved seven runs off a lead that was 10-0 in the middle of the sixth.
Even Short was wobbly at the finish. He gave up six runs, all earned, on four hits and a walk in two-thirds of an inning as the Rebels lost a three-run lead in the eighth and lost 12-8 to Texas A&M in the SEC semifinals.
Redshirt freshman Brady Feigl, an important part of the bullpen’s success throughout the season, will be remembered for giving up a three-run lead to No. 4 seed Utah in the sixth inning of the regional, but it was Short – a dominant regular season closer with 11 saves – that gave up the lead with a single and double in the Utes’ two-out rally in the 10th.
The Rebels would not have been in that position against Utah had they been able to hit freshman reliever Riley Ottesen, who took the mound with a 7.46 ERA in 35 innings. Instead, Ottesen threw three scoreless with one hit and no walks against No. 1 seed Ole Miss.
Short was the loser in two of the last three games, but middle relief was an issue in every one of the last four games, even the Vanderbilt game that Short finally closed.
Stokes had problems at the finish too, most notably the memorable ninth-inning home run he allowed to Tulane catcher Jake Rogers as the Green Wave rallied to oust Ole Miss.
It wasn’t just one pitch. Two pitches before Rogers missed the home run only because his left field shot was foul by just a few feet. It was a play that reminded me of Richard Pryor, the feeble minor league hurler in the opening frames of the film Brewster’s Millions. Stokes had walked the previous batter.
While starting pitching had Ole Miss in position to win in its two regional losses, hitting and relief pitching failed.
As I mentioned, expectations often change on the fly, and the disappointment from an 0-2 performance in a home regional will linger.
It should not overshadow what this team accomplished, and the coaching job by Bianco as Ole Miss, which began the season with question marks that screamed average, won 43 games and presented a very strong case for a national seed.