By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – You can cover a lot of topics in a four-hour rain delay. Had a long-time observer of Ole Miss baseball tell me Sunday he’d have taken 30 wins for this team before it threw the first pitch.
It’s interesting that mediocrity could be so quickly embraced for a program that has developed a national profile under Mike Bianco.
However, when you begin a season without five of your top six pitchers and a handful of key offensive players, your career RBI leader among them, expectations form, and they’re not very high.
As the season enters its final three games, No. 18 Ole Miss, which faces No. 16 Auburn for three games at home beginning Thursday, has exceeded the meager expectations of January but is in danger of falling short of the modified ones that came after back-to-back sweeps against then-No. 8 LSU and Mississippi State a few weeks back.
Those six-straight SEC wins were played with designated hitter Matt Snyder in the lineup, and that makes a world of difference for this Ole Miss team.
Players are more confident when he’s there. Snyder produces, and that seems to spread within the batting order. His availability for the series is still TBA.
One player shouldn’t make that much difference in a program that sees itself with Omaha potential, but this season it does.
There’s a connection there with those January expectations, and the level of offensive talent needs to be addressed in the off-season.
Snyder played the first game of the Arkansas series, tweaked his ailing shoulder, and has missed the last six games.
In the Rebels’ last six SEC games – which includes one game with Snyder – they’ve averaged 2.6 runs. They’ve gone 2-4 in that span, winning 3-2 on Saturday against Arkansas and 5-4 on Friday against Alabama.
They’ve done just enough to maintain a slight grip on opportunity, and they almost control their destiny. Tied with Arkansas in second and a game behind Auburn, Ole Miss could possibly win the division simply by winning two games. That would leave the Rebels tied with Auburn, but they’d own the tie-breaker.
That scenario would require Arkansas to lose two games at Vanderbilt. Whatever happens this weekend, the Rebels cannot finish tied with Arkansas and win the division.
A winning weekend against Auburn would go a long way in the Rebels’ quest to host an NCAA regional like they’ve done for five of the last six years.
Whether they host or not, it should be a postseason like Swayze Field atmosphere for the series.
Perhaps that will help the Rebels amp it up on offense. More likely, if Ole Miss wins the series it will be because of starting pitching.
Auburn is the league’s best offensive team, leading the SEC – and not by a little bit – in average, hits and home runs.
Ole Miss has two of the SEC’s best starters in Drew Pomeranz and Aaron Barrett, and the progress of David Goforth has been encouraging.
Bianco’s teams have always pitched it well.
Those January expectations were put in place with the knowledge that the pitching staff included a great one in Pomeranz, who leads the SEC with 121 strikeouts.
Barrett, who fell off the map last year, has developed and is second with 88 strikeouts.
Perhaps the two of them can help Ole Miss surpass the second set of expectations, not only the first set, and make something special of this season.
Because when the Great One and a capable No. 2 starter – and a load of position players with them – are subtracted from the lineup, reaching this point will be more difficult in 2011.
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@ djournal.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
SEC this week:
To prepare for next week’s SEC Tournament, the league schedule this week runs Thursday through Saturday:
Auburn at Ole Miss
Miss. State at LSU