The buzzword that Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco used before the season began – toughness – was put to the test on Sunday.
After its 10th-inning meltdown Saturday, when rival Mississippi State scored four times in the bottom of the 10th to win 6-5, Ole Miss had every chance to let the devastation linger.
Late heroics by MSU’s Wes Rea and Gavin Collins could have triggered a two-for-the-price-of-one weekend for the Bulldogs.
It required toughness on the part of the Rebels to keep that from happening and win 12-2 to take the series.
“We preach it all the time. Y’all may think it’s just a catch word, just something to say, but this team is really tough,” said Sam Smith, who pitched into the seventh and upped his record to 5-2.
That fight showed itself early with a two-run first on Sunday and with the efficiency in getting runners around the bases in a four-run fourth.
Sunday’s win wasn’t about base-clearing doubles and home runs. It was about intense focus on offense and pounding out a season-high 20 hits.
There was toughness from Sam Smith too. He did what he usually does. He doesn’t dominate with strikeouts but keeps the ball in the park, no small feat with strong wind blowing out to left field. Smith absorbed six hits and walked two.
At times it was the Bulldogs who looked unfocused – such as when Rebels were at first and third in the fifth. Errol Robinson stole second, and Preston Overbey scored without a throw.
In the same inning, Will Jamison beat out an infield hit that smashed off MSU pitcher Brandon Woodruff, because second baseman Brett Pirtle was slow trying to make the play.
Ole Miss was the more locked-in team, the tougher team.
Missing a key component of its bullpen in Aaron Greenwood, the Rebels were still a whisker away from sweeping the Bulldogs. Maybe Greenwood would have made a difference Saturday.
For toughness to matter it has to extend to all phases of play, and right now Ole Miss needs it most when closing games.
The Rebels have had issues on the road doing that and have left wins on the table at South Carolina, at Alabama and at MSU.
Relentless offense can cover up some things, but you don’t write 12 runs and 20 hits into your game plan.
There’s a lot to like about this team as it sits 9-6 in conference play, a game behind Alabama in the SEC West.
But there’s room to improve with LSU in town this Thursday and a trip to Kentucky the following week.
It will take toughness across the board to play postseason baseball at Swayze Field.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at InsideOleMissSports.com.