How much difference can one player make in a baseball lineup?
Plenty. Just take a look at two Mississippi teams.
Ole Miss has won seven straight game and four straight against nationally ranked teams (on the road). During that streak, senior left fielder Kevin Graham is hitting .572 with four home runs, seven runs scored and 10 runs batted in.
Graham, who surely possesses one of the sweetest swings in all of college baseball, was on the bench with a broken wrist from March 6 until April 8. During his absence, the Rebels won nine games and lost eight. Before and after his injury, the Rebels are 22-11. (They were 10-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation when Graham got hurt.)
This is not to say that Graham is solely responsible for the Rebels’ impressive seven-game win streak. But it is to say that his presence as the clean-up hitter makes the Ole Miss batting order so much more imposing. As a result, Tim Elko, the 3-hole hitter, sees far better pitches. The opposition has to think twice, maybe three times, about pitching around Elko when Graham is in the on deck circle. Graham makes the entire lineup look different.
“There’s no doubt our lineup is a lot harder to navigate with Kevin Graham right in the middle of it,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said Sunday night. “The guy can just hit. He had that same swing when he committed to us in the ninth grade. The guy couldn’t swing a bat for four and a half weeks and look at what he’s doing now.”
It also helps that Ole Miss has settled on a pitching rotation that has been much improved recently.
Southern Miss had won 14 straight games and was ranked No. 5 in the land when the Golden Eagles lost their left fielder and 3-hole hitter Reece Ewing. The Eagles were 32-8 overall, 16-2 in Conference USA when Ewing suffered a broken bone in his hand against Rice.
Ewing missed the next nine games, and Southern Miss was 4-5 in those games. He returned on Friday night against UTSA and the Eagles won the weekend series with Ewing playing a key role. Again, Ewing wasn’t solely responsible for the crucial series victory that gives the Eagles a three-game Conference USA lead with just three games to play. But his presence was absolutely crucial.
Ewing batted 13 times against UTSA. He reached base eight of those with six walks, a double and a home run.
During his absence, the Eagles batters left runner after runner on base, often chasing pitches far out of the strike zone. Upon his return, he showed the patience that had been sadly lacking from his teammates, which wasn’t lost on Southern Miss coach Scott Berry.
“Something you learn about Reece Ewing is that he doesn’t swing at pitches out of the zone,” Berry said. “The guy hasn’t seen the field in I don’t know how long, but he doesn’t get himself out.”
In Saturday and Sunday victories, it was as if the other Southern Miss batters took a cue from Ewing, waited for something in the zone to swing, and then made the pitcher pay. They hit six home runs on Sunday.
Here’s the deal with both the Rebels’ Graham and the Eagles’ Ewing. They weren’t able to take batting practice during all those games they missed. This wasn’t like the Major Leagues. They didn’t get rehab assignments before they returned to the lineup. In Ewing’s case, he had a cast removed on Thursday and was back in the lineup on Friday.
Graham’s recent tear could not have come at a more opportune time for Ole Miss, which has soared to a No. 38 RPI after being down in the 60s. The Rebels have played their way back in to the NCAA Tournament picture and can rise even higher with Texas A&M (33-16, 17-10 and No. 20 RPI) coming to Oxford for a three-game weekend series.
With three regular season games to play, nationally ranked Southern Miss is still very much in play to host an NCAA Regional. The Eagles need to win the CUSA regular season title — which they will do with one victory at Middle Tennessee next weekend — and then play well when they host the Conference USA Tournament.
Don’t know how much NCAA selection committee takes into consideration what happened when key players were missing from the lineup. But clearly, Graham at Ole Miss and Ewing at Southern Miss make their teams much bigger threats to make a deep postseason run.