Mississippi’s two best college baseball teams were on display at Pearl’s Trustmark Park Tuesday night and one looked far better than the other.
Ole Miss, ranked as high as No. 4 nationally, drubbed No. 12 Southern Miss 11-3 before a crowd of 5,722. The Rebels appeared a team that could go deep into the post-season with effective midweek pitching, clutch hitting and errorless – and sometimes spectacular – play in the field.
You should have seen centerfielder Will Golsan’s against-the-wall catch of Luke Reynolds’ mighty blow in the fifth inning, likely preventing a big USM inning. At the crack of the bat, Golsan turned and sprinted to the deepest part of the ballpark where he snagged Reynolds’ blast.
“I couldn’t believe he caught it,” Reynolds would later say. “I can’t hit it any harder than that.”
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco called the victory “big.”
“We bounced back from a disappointing weekend and we did it against a really good team,” Bianco said.
Ole Miss suffered its first series loss last weekend, losing two of three to Mississippi State at Starkville.
“It was the first time all season that I didn’t think we played well,” Bianco said.
But the Rebels did what good teams do. They flushed the poor weekend performance by breaking on top 6-0 in the second inning and then coasting to a comfortable win.
This has been a bounce-back season for 28-6 Ole Miss, which struggled to a disappointing 32-25 record last year. Remember? The Rebels were welcoming one of the nation’s top recruiting classes featuring homegrown Oxford products Thomas Dillard and Grae Kessinger. Both struggled as freshmen. Dillard hit .206. Kessinger hit .176. Both are far, far better than that and have shown it this spring.
Dillard, who had two hits and knocked in three runs against USM, is hitting .328 with nine doubles, two triples and seven home runs. The slick-fielding Kessinger, who was rested Tuesday night, has hit .309 with nine doubles and a home run.
“Those two have grown up and it didn’t take long,” USM’s Scott Berry said.
“You always hear people say there’s no substitute for experience,” Bianco said. “Well, just look at us.”
The Rebels are hitting .303 as a team. Still, the team’s strength remains a deep, talented pitching staff and really good defense.
USM’s Berry has no such luxury when it comes to pitching. Nick Sandlin, the team’s ace, has been remarkably good with a 4-0 record, an earned run average of 1.29 and a strikeout/walk ratio of an utterly ridiculous 75/6. Opponents hit just .160 against him. But Sandlin will miss his Friday night start at FIU with stiffness in his throwing shoulder, and USM pitching has been thin behind him.
USM, 22-10, which swept three games from State to start the season and got off to a 17-5 start, is now 5-5 in its last 10 games. Berry had a word for that: “mediocre.”
“We gotta find a way to get out of this funk,” Berry said. “Tonight we played passively and Ole Miss was aggressive. They were clearly the better team. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Junior Mason Strickland may have given USM pitching some hope for the future Tuesday night, pitching 5.1 innings of three-hit, one run baseball. He did what other USM pitchers didn’t, which is throw strikes and pitch ahead in the count.
The middle of USM’s order – Reynolds, Matt Wallner and Hunter Slater – continues to swing big bats, but, at least lately, others aren’t producing.
Meanwhile, can anyone ever figure out baseball?
Follow me. USM impressively sweeps Mississippi State to start the season. Mississippi State takes two of three from Ole Miss. Ole Miss sweeps its season series with USM 2-0.
State coaching legend Ron Polks always summed it up in two words: “That’s baseball.”