Here’s the latest round of positive proof that Mississippi is, above all else, a baseball state:
• Mississippi State is ranked No. 2 in the nation in the latest Baseball America poll. The Bulldogs, 16-4 and 2-1, are fresh from taking two of three games from LSU at Baton Rouge — no easy feat. Here’s what jumps out at me about Chris Lemonis’ team: State has used a staggering 23 pitchers in the 20 games so far. Those arms have combined for a team earned run average of 2.36. They have struck out 259batters and walked only 66 over 179 innings. Opponents hit only .176. That’s crazy good. Fourteen State pitchers have ERAs of under 2. That’s insane.
• Ole Miss is ranked No. 4 in the latest Baseball America poll, having swept three straight from Auburn to begin the SEC season. The Rebels, like State, are 16-4 overall and the similarities don’t end there. Mike Bianco has called on 19 pitchers to date and most have delivered, led by Friday night starter Gunnar Hoglund, who pitched eight innings of shutout ball, striking out 13 against Auburn. Hoglund leads the nation in strikeouts with 55. At the plate, Ole Miss loves the long ball. The Rebels have hit 24 home runs in 20 games, led by strapping first baseman Tim Elko with seven.
• Unranked Southern Miss, after a slow start, has won eight of its last night games to move to 12-6. Perhaps more impressively, Scott Berry’s Golden Eagles have won five consecutive weekend series to begin the season. Pitching has led the way with 18 pitchers combining to strike out 204 and walk only 36 over 158 innings. You read right: 204 Ks and 36 BBs over 158 innings. That’s a ridiculous strikeout/walks ratio and that pitching has allowed the Eagles to succeed despite an uncharacteristically anemic offensive attack. Southern Miss currently hits .208 as a team. That must improve for Berry’s team to have the success it has come to expect.
• Don’t look now, but Jackson State has the look of an NCAA Regional team. Since starting 0-4, the Tigers have won 11 of 12, including a three-game road sweep of arch-rival Alcorn when the Tigers outscored the Braves a whopping 47-13.
• It should be noted that, despite COVID-19, Ole Miss, State and Southern Miss all have drawn well. No tickets have been sold at the games. The entire allotment of available tickets have been sold beforehand.
If you follow college baseball, you know that the more you win, the more important it seems that the games become. That’s certainly the case this week where the Mississippi teams are concerned.
Start with this: No. 2 ranked State plays a three-game home weekend series with No. 1 ranked Arkansas. How’s that for March baseball: No. 1 vs. No. 2, 14-3 vs. 16-4? If standing-room-only crowds were allowed, you might have 45,000 people for those three games. Arkansas, which took two of three from Alabama to open its SEC season, is scheduled for two mid-week games with Memphis.
No. 4 ranked Ole Miss is scheduled to play Central Arkansas Tuesday night, followed by a three-game set Thursday through Saturday against Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Alabama, 15-5 going into a scheduled Tuesday afternoon home game with Southern Miss, is ranked No. 23 by Baseball America and displayed its power in taking a 17-1 victory at Arkansas before dropping the last two games of the series.
In Hattiesburg, Berry’s Golden Eagles will play one of its most important early season in years this weekend against Louisiana Tech, which is somehow unranked by Baseball America but is ranked No. 23 by DI Baseball and probably deserves to be ranked even higher. The Bulldogs, playing in a brand new ball yard under Meridian native Lane Burroughs, are off to a 13-5 record against one of the nation’s more difficult schedules. Tech clobbered Ole Miss 13-1 in one mid-week game and is coming off a three-game sweep at Tulane.
This weekend will mark the COVID-induced four-game league series in Conference USA. Instead of the traditional three-game sets, CUSA teams will play four-game series with Friday single games, Saturday seven-inning double-headers and then a single game on Sunday. Tech and Southern Miss, along with Florida Atlantic, are expected to be the class of CUSA this season. Hard to imagine a more meaningful March series than this one.