OXFORD – Ole Miss players will gather at Swayze Field today to learn their postseason destination, but the sparkling baseball complex won’t host another college game until next season.
The Rebels are going on the road, beginning their eighth-straight NCAA tournament not with a head of steam but with cautious optimism.
Starting pitching is capable, the hitting suspect, but winning twice in the SEC tournament may help pump up confidence for a team that had lost five straight.
The SEC is one of the nation’s top baseball conferences, No. 1in RPI but bunched closely with the PAC-10, ACC and Big 12.
Getting to the Final Four in Hoover is a big deal. Ole Miss, after getting outscored 34-8 at home by Auburn, just needed wins. The Rebels needed to feel good about themselves.
“This was definitely a confidence builder,” said junior outfielder Matt Smith in evaluating a four-game stay at Regions Park that included victories against two 40-win teams.
Some things were better for Ole Miss in the conference tournament, but some things were not.
It was an emotional lift to win against an Auburn team that had just beaten Ole Miss three times and handled it twice with great ease.
South Carolina arrived carrying hopes of a national seed when the Drew Pomeranz-led Rebels won 3-0 on opening day.
Offense was better in those wins, even against South Carolina when Ole Miss squandered run-scoring opportunities in the middle innings.
Those wins also had asterisks. Ole Miss threw its ace, but South Carolina didn’t, instead using in Game 1 a pitcher who’d thrown almost exclusively in non-conference games this season.
Auburn played without two starters who were injured in the previous day’s play, outfielders Trent Mummey and Brian Fletcher, who had combined for 35 home runs.
While the wins created confidence, the losses were a reminder of how difficult offense is for this team. The Rebels produced just three runs total against Alabama and LSU, none against the latter.
Alabama’s Nathan Kilcrease pitched 81⁄3 innings, an off-speed right-hander who at one point retired 17 consecutive Ole Miss batters.
LSU threw a right-hander making only his second start – the first was against Alcorn State – and Ben Alsup tossed a one-hit shutout and was just three batters away from a perfect seven-inning game.
A matter of perspective
Glass half-full: Pitching and defense were good enough for the Rebels to reach the semis in a conference tournament with eight stout teams.
Glass half-empty: Run-scoring remains a problem whether an opponent throws its ace or something far less.
SEC coaches are quick to offer the opinion that their conference tournament is more difficult than any four-team regional they’ll encounter.
That may be true, and the first two arms Ole Miss opponents will see – Pomeranz and Aaron Barrett – can win the first two games of a regional, an often overwhelming advantage.
But even the best pitching needs help, and Barrett will need a little more than Pomeranz.
The bottom line is the personality of this team is pitching, and whatever the Rebels get done this postseason will be determined by how will they play on the mound.
The offense isn’t likely to be fixed by the time the Omaha field is set within the next two weeks.
Offense must be fixed moving forward, however, so that a year from now when players gather at Swayze Field it will be to see not where they’re going but who’s coming to visit.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal