HATTIESBURG — To paraphrase the great Twain: Reports of the demise of the Ole Miss Rebels baseball team have been greatly exaggerated.
Yes, the road to a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament — and the 21st in Mike Bianco’s 26-season Ole Miss coaching stint — looked at dead end just a few days ago. The Rebels were floundering at 24-19, and a lowly 7-14 in the SEC.
But that was before the Rebels swept three straight from Missouri by a combined score of 25-8 and then bested Southern Miss 4-1 before a packed house of 6,346 at Pete Taylor Park.
All of the sudden, the Rebs are 28-19 with a No. 49 RPI (up six places in one night) and with a chance to make a quantum leap this weekend at LSU.
As mid-week victories go, the Rebs’ conquest of the Golden Eagles was about as big as they come. Southern Miss came in at 36-12 and with a No. 16 RPI. The victory was earned before a standing-room-only crowd of 6,346, the largest in Southern Miss history by more than 600. You’d have needed a shoehorn to get another warm body in the place.
There’s a baseball lesson here for the taking. In this most capricious of sports, things are never quite as desperate as they may seem. Seasons can turn around as quickly as a couple bats heat up or a key player gets healthy. Look at the Atlanta Braves or the Mississippi State Bulldogs last season. Look at Southern Miss’ only College World Series team back in 2009. The Eagles were dead in the water in early May, in Omaha in June. This stuff just happens in baseball. Things change. Fast.
And here’s another lesson: In baseball, things often aren’t nearly as rosy as they may seem, either. Just two weeks ago, Southern Miss had just won its school-record 15th straight game, had a 33-8 record and was ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation. Then a couple sluggers got hurt, a couple breaks went the wrong way, and now the Golden Eagles have lost five of their last eight games and back-to-back Conference USA series, and seem to be limping toward the finish.
Their Conference USA lead is down to two games over UTSA. And guess who comes to town Friday. If you guessed the UTSA Roadrunners, winners of their last six conference series, you would be absolutely correct.
But let’s get back to Ole Miss for the moment. Once the No. 1 ranked team in the land (before the Tennessee monster appeared), the Rebels are fully capable of extending this modest four-game win streak and playing their way into the NCAA Tournament. Few teams can slug with the Rebels when they are on seeing the ball as they appear to be seeing it now.
They can strike like lightning, as they showed in the fourth inning Wednesday night. Southern Miss starter Matt Adams had faced the minimum through three innings and the Eagles held a 1-0 lead. Then, Jacob Gonzalez singled up the middle, and one batter later, sweet-swinging Kevin Graham slammed a two-run home run into USM’s Right Field Roost. Before the home crowd could recover from that, Kemp Alderman then launched a massive, solo home run to left field. Little did we know, the Rebels had all the runs they would need with five innings still to play.
Graham’s homer was the game’s big blow and it came on a change-up from Adams that Graham was totally expecting. “He threw me four changes my first at bat,” Graham said. “That’s what I was expecting. That’s what I got, over the middle of the plate and down.”
Drew McDaniel gave the Rebels a quality start, five innings 0f one-run baseball. Jackson Kimbrell, Josh Mallitz and Brandon Johnson then shut the Eagles down on one hit over the last four frames.
“This was obviously a big win,” Bianco said. “They’ve been a top 10 team and this is a tough place to play. You can’t say enough about the job Scott Berry has done here. We needed this and it’s nice to play well tonight in this atmosphere after we played so well last weekend.”
Across the field, Berry lamented what he called “too many non-competitive at bats.”
“We struck out 15 times, and I can’t remember a time when we’ve struck out more than our opponents, but that’s what happened tonight. Not taking anything away from Ole Miss, they pitched it well, but we just didn’t compete. We had runners in scoring position in four innings and didn’t get a hit. We didn’t get anything but Sarge’s (Christopher Sargent’s) second inning home run.
“We’ve scored five runs in our last three losses,” Berry continued. “That’s not going to get it.”
Slugger Slade Wilks is back in the Eagles lineup after missing four games, but Reece Ewing, the normally the No. 3 hitter in the Southern Miss order, has now missed nine straight games with a broken hand that has healed slowly. Let’s put it this way: The Eagles lineup looks a lot different without him in it.
Berry said Ewing will visit a hand specialist Thursday, but he didn’t sound hopeful of getting him back any time soon — and certainly not for this weekend’s big conference series.
Berry’s offense currently needs a shot in the arm, and Ewing is not where it’s coming from — at least not immediately. If there’s a silver lining for the Golden Eagles, it’s this: This is baseball. It can turn back around as quickly as it just turned around.