By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Hitting showed some improvement for Ole Miss in the SEC tournament, and the Rebels reached the semifinals.
Pitching took a big step forward for St. John’s last week, and the Red Storm won the Big East tournament championship.
Friday’s NCAA tournament first-round game between No. 2 seed Ole Miss and No. 3 seed St. John’s may be decided by which team plays better in the weaker part of its game.
The Red Storm (40-18) has won with timely and aggressive hitting, while a freshman-dominated pitching staff finished in the middle of the pack among Big East teams with a 5.01 earned run average.
“With any young staff, it’s about command,” said St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer, who won his 500th game in early May. “At times we’ve pitched well, and at times we haven’t pitched well. It’s taken its toll in some games.”
For Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, it’s been more about hitting. Starting pitching has been consistent for the Rebels (38-22), but they’ve struggled to score runs.
Ole Miss enters the regional with a .287 team batting average, last in the SEC and 219th in the nation.
That’s 22 percentage points behind the next-closest opponent in the Charlottesville Regional. No. 4 seed Virginia Commonwealth, of the Colonial Athletic Association, is hitting .309.
Four games in the SEC tournament offered a mixed bag of results. The Rebels got off some better swings against South Carolina and Auburn but were shut down by Alabama and LSU, the latter by a bullpen pitcher, who was making only his second start, his first against an SEC opponent.
Bianco has tweaked his lineup, his batting order and has tried different things to get the Rebels back on the track they were on in late April and early May when they scored 27 runs against LSU and 35 against Mississippi State.
He continues to seek that improvement and says this weekend is not the time for a roll-it-out-and-see-what-happens approach.
“We’ve practiced the last few days, and we have not just been in shorts going through the motions,” he said.
Bianco has used four different leadoff hitters, five different cleanup hitters. Shortstop Kevin Mort has batted second, eighth and ninth.
Much of the shuffling was injury-related, as sophomore Matt Snyder, considered the team’s best option at cleanup hitter, missed 20 games with complications from a shoulder separation at Tulane in early March.
Bianco said the Rebels’ struggles against Alabama and LSU last week were due in large part to falling behind into pitchers-advantage counts.
“We haven’t hit the ball early in the count, in offensive counts like 0-0, 1-0, 2-1, so we’re going to stress that more this week. We have to get back to consistency like what you should be thinking when you’re stepping into the box and more your approach as far as trying to get better swings off.”
Not about Mossberg
Earlier this week Bianco defended hitting coach Matt Mossberg, who played under Bianco from 2001-2004. Mossberg had been the staff’s volunteer assistant coach and was promoted to his first full-time job in December in the staff shuffle that followed the abrupt resignation of hitting coach Rob Reinstetle.
“It’s easy to look at that, because we haven’t hit as well, but I don’t necessarily think it all falls on Matt. I think a lot of it falls on me,” Bianco said.
“I should have been a little more involved throughout the year, but it’s been one of those years. We’ve been inconsistent at the mound, we’ve been inconsistent at the plate. Again, that’s why we’re going on the road for the regional.”
Bianco said he expected a more “seamless transition” with Mossberg as hitting coach, because Mossberg assisted with the hitters while serving as volunteer assistant.
Young success for St. John’s
Freshmen have accounted for roughly half the wins for the Red Storm, most of them from Kyle Hansen (8-1, 3.09), the freshman of the year in the Big East and the MVP of the conference tournament.
Hansen is a possible Friday starter, but Blankmeyer expressed concern over his conditioning and could use another option, he said.
Hansen threw 61⁄3 scoreless innings last Sunday in the Big East title game, as St. John’s defeated UConn 3-0.
“He’s a little bit sore at this time, we have to be careful. He has a good future ahead of him. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Blankmeyer said he’s considering three other pitchers as well.
While pitching was at times problematic for the Red Storm, the staff allowed just 10 runs through four games last week – including two wins against No. 7 national seed Louisville – in the Big East tournament.
Senior right-hander Bruce Kern (6-5, 5.91) has been the No. 2 starter. Others in the mix for Friday are freshmen Sean Hagan (4-1, 4.74), a left-hander, and Matt Carasiti (7-4, 5.88), a right-hander.
“How they’ll play in the NCAA tournament, time will tell,” Blankmeyer said. “Our kids have put themselves in trouble sometimes instead of being put in trouble by other clubs. It’s a learning process.
“We have to play to our strengths and stay within ourselves. When push comes to shove, our kids will go with their best pitch.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600