When Ole Miss next wins a baseball game — quite possibly this weekend in a three-game series at Texas A&M — it will mark Mike Bianco’s 800th victory at the university and his 900th as a college baseball coach.
Now then, here is what is most impressive about that: Only two coaches in Southeastern Conference history have won so many games as an SEC coach. Those coaches are named Skip Bertman and Ron Polk, the two all-time college baseball coaching legends — indeed, the two men most responsible for making SEC baseball what it has become, by far the premier college baseball league in the country.
This was mentioned to Bianco in a one-on-one interview with Mississippi Today in his office on Wednesday, the morning after his Rebels had won his Ole Miss victory No. 799, an ugly, 15-12 decision over Arkansas State. “Polk, Bertman and then Bianco — how does that make you feel?” he was asked.
His answer was typical Bianco, which is typically classy.
“I am not sure I belong in the same category as those two men whom I have so much respect for,” Bianco said. “I played for Bertman and have been a long-time admirer of Coach Polk, who visited my high school and talked to me about playing at State. I mean, those two men put college baseball on the map. They are responsible for all the huge stadiums, the TV, the crowds, everything you see in college baseball these days.”
He’s right about Polk and Bertman. And what he won’t say is this: Bianco is far and away the most responsible for what baseball has become at Ole Miss: the current nation’s leader in attendance, currently a Top 10 team and perennially in the national polls, a huge producer of Major League talent, and an almost annual participant in the NCAA Tournament. The current Rebels are 32-12 overall, 13-8 in the SEC and ranked as high as No. 9 in the various national polls.
And yet, Bianco often is criticized by Rebel fans, mostly for not faring better against arch-rival Mississippi State and for not winning more in the postseason. Ole Miss has lost 16 of its last 19 games against State, but before that Bianco was 35-29 against the Bulldogs. Despite making the NCAA field in 16 of his 19 seasons, Bianco’s Rebels advanced to the College World Series in Omaha just once in 2014.
We’ll dive more deeply into that criticism, but first let’s take a look at what it will take for the Rebels to advance to Omaha in 2021. Obviously, it will take getting hot and playing their best baseball when it matters most. That goes for everybody in college baseball. There are probably 50 teams capable of making it to Omaha, but baseball is always about matchups and about playing best when it matters most.
Let’s get specific. Despite an injury to slugger Tim Elko, Ole Miss remains plenty good enough offensively to advance through the regionals and a super regional. They lead the SEC in batting average and rank in the top five in nearly all the pertinent offensive categories. The starting pitching — especially the one-two punch of Gunnar Hoglund and Doug Nikhazy — is top shelf and bodes well should the Rebels reach a best-of-three super regional.
The team’s Achilles heel is the bullpen. Closer Taylor Broadway has been superb. The problem has been finding a bridge from the starter to Broadway.
“We’ve got to be better out of the bullpen,” Bianco said.
“People talk all the time about Elko’s injury and that has hurt and would hurt anybody, but what might have affected us just as much or more was losing (Max) Cioffi,” Bianco said.
Cioffi, a senior, had been a dependable reliever — early, mid and late — in past seasons but pitched only twice in the early season before suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). The UCL connects the inside of the upper arm (humerus) to the inside of your forearm (ulna). Cioffi has undergone surgery to repair the injury.
Tuesday night’s victory over Arkansas State was a perfect example of the Rebels’ bullpen woes. Often it looked as if Arkansas State was taking batting practice. Seven Rebel relievers gave up 13 hits, five walks and 11 runs before Bianco, desperate, finally called on often-starter Derek Diamond to finally close out the game. Bianco didn’t need a treadmill to get in his steps Tuesday. He got plenty between the dugout and pitcher’s mound.
Is improvement possible? Freshman Jack Dougherty showed he could be a much more a part of a steady bridge to Broadway with a 3.1 inning, hitless, scoreless performance this past weekend against South Carolina. Continued success from Dougherty would be huge.
As for the criticism Bianco receives — mostly on social media and message boards — take a look at his records against SEC opponents. His overall records against Mississippi State and LSU are just under .500, but he’s dominated matchups against SEC West opponents Alabama (38-29), Arkansas (39-33), Auburn (37-27) and Texas A&M (15-9). He’s even got winning records against other storied SEC programs with recent national championships: Vanderbilt (27-23) and Florida (28-22).
When asked about the criticism in the interview this week, he took a comes-with-the-territory approach.
“I don’t read social media and message boards and frankly I sometimes think the world would be better without both,” Bianco said. “Every coach is going to get criticized, especially in the SEC. I do think sometimes it gets magnified by the size of your following. If you have 10,000 coming to the games, you are going to have more criticism than if it’s a thousand or two.”
That last part is true and so is this: The criticism, fair or not, will likely continue until the Rebels break through and win another regional and then a super regional and reach Omaha. And that won’t happen this spring unless the bullpen improves.