College baseball offers little time to contemplate your achievements, but some things, like SEC championships or a share of same, require reflection.
There have been division championships, in halves or in full, in various sports over the years, but the overall SEC crown is rare in these parts. For Ole Miss, it was the first piece of a regular season title – in football, basketball or baseball – since baseball won it in 1977.
So how did the Rebels get here, and what was the turning point?
Timely hitting isn’t something you can pencil in on a lineup card, but the Rebels have been able to summon it more times than not. They scored in the ninth inning against Alabama and in the late innings against Kentucky to score Friday night wins and set up series victories early in the schedule.
Clutch offense was a key to the very last series, as Ole Miss made Arkansas pay for its errors on Friday and Saturday.
The power-hitting question was addressed to some degree when Kyle Henson became the primary catcher and played as designated hitter also. An injury to Brett Basham created a small opening for Henson, and he’s taken full advantage.
Though he’s started only 32 of 55 games, Henson leads the team with eight home runs. He’s doubled eight times, giving him extra bases on 17 of his 41 hits.
A team not loaded with home run hitters became a successful small-ball and base-stealing unit – Jordan Henry leads the league with 33 thefts – and Ole Miss heads into postseason averaging nine runs in its last nine games, all within the SEC.
All about pitching
The makeup of the team – without a hitter in the SEC’s top 12 – has never been about offense, it’s been about pitching, where Nathan Baker, Phillip Irwin, Drew Pomeranz and Brett Bukvich appear in the top 12. The list doesn’t include the team’s best player, Scott Bittle, who hasn’t pitched enough innings to qualify as an earned run average statistical leader.
Developing the pitching staff became more of a challenge for Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco when two junior college transfers didn’t pan out as well as hoped. As a staff the Rebels lead the league in ERA and do so without what could truly be considered a marquis SEC name beyond Bittle.
It is Bittle, though, who provided the turning point to reach this championship level. His ability to go from closer to starter, baffling hitters with that sinking fastball, solidified a rocky weekend rotation and helped the Rebels win four straight SEC Sunday games.
His presence is why they’re here, and his absence, because of arm soreness that kept him off the mound the last three weekends, is why they’re future is sketchy.
National seed coming?
A 20-10 mark in the conference with the No. 1 RPI should get the Rebels back in the discussion for one of the eight national seeds, which would pave the way for a home schedule through the regional and super regional rounds. Ole Miss ended the 2005 regular season with the No. 1 RPI. They won four games in the SEC tournament and received a No. 5 seed. RPI enthusiast Boyd Nation presently ranks the Rebels with an RPI of 14.
If Bittle is healthy and pitching this team sets up nicely for a deep postseason run.
Without him, some of those off-Broadway names like Irwin, Bukvich and Baker are going to have to come through.
They’ve done just that down the stretch, and that’s a big reason Ole Miss has a share of the SEC title today.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs about Ole Miss athletics at www.NeMs360.com.
NEMS Daily Journal