By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – NCAA tournament at-large bids will be announced this morning, and Ole Miss is expecting a spot in the field of 64 for the 11th time in 13 years under Mike Bianco.
How long the Rebels last may depend largely on their pitching.
The starters have been the signature of this Ole Miss team, and Bianco is hopeful that improvement from the bullpen in three SEC tournament games signals a return to better fortunes for a group that struggled to the finish of the regular season.
“We’ve had some hard breaks the last couple of weeks, but the bullpen as a whole has gotten better,” said junior right-hander Aaron Greenwood, one of the Rebels’ two primary set-up men. “We have a lot of swagger and confidence to finish the year strong.”
At his best, Greenwood went a span of 16 innings with only one earned run allowed in SEC play.
He had fallen on hard times, struggling to locate his fastball, and his role was diminished against Mississippi State.
He pitched better in the final regular season series at LSU. The 42⁄3-inning appearance was far and away his longest of the year.
Against Arkansas in the SEC tournament, Greenwood allowed one run in 31⁄3 innings.
He credited assistant coach Carl Lafferty for helping him with his mechanics – most notably a shortening of his stride – to help him get back on track.
“Coach Laff has been working with me in the pen to keep the ball low in the zone. That’s really helped me make it a lot harder for hitters to make good contact and square the ball up. My ball was not on a downward tilt. It was up in the zone and a lot easier for hitters to hit.”
In 30 SEC games, the Rebels posted a 3.51 earned run average, sixth in the league just behind rival Mississippi State.
Much of that ERA was built by starters. Bobby Wahl, a projected first-round draft pick in the weeks ahead, had a conference ERA of less than 2 until the final weekend.
In Hoover, starters Mike Mayers and Sam Smith allowed just one earned run in a combined 121⁄3 innings. Wahl did not pitch, though he would have started had the Rebels advanced to play a fourth game.
Smith’s ERA of 3.11 is the highest of the Ole Miss starters. Wahl carries an ERA of 1.99, Mayers of 2.98 heading into NCAA play.
Bianco is hopeful the bullpen is about to complete the picture.
“Greenwood was terrific. It’s nice to have him back. The way he pitched today is the way he pitched most of the year,” he said. “The bullpen took a lot of flack the last few weeks, and probably deservingly so. It was nice to see him pitch so well on back-to-back weekends.”