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Seeking more consistency, Ole Miss baseball has to ‘get better in everything’ after rare NCAA Tournament miss

While 64 teams practice this week in preparation for regionals, Ole Miss is packing it up after not being selected as one of them.

It’s a rare reality for the Rebels, who missed the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in Mike Bianco’s 17 years as head coach. Ole Miss lost eight of its last 11 games and four of its last five to finish 14-16 in Southeastern Conference play, likely leaving the Rebels a league win or two shy from making the field given that a .500 record or better in one of the nation’s premier baseball conferences is usually enough to do the trick.

Fitting for a team that Bianco and his players alike said was good but not good enough.

“I think that will be a big goal next fall is to be a little tougher to kind of will some of that consistency into some of those weekends,” Bianco said. “We were so, so close but weren’t able to pull one more game out. That happened to us too much this year.”

Bianco harped on a number of seasons the consistency lacked this season for the Rebels, who went 25-25 after a 7-0 start, but offense was a problem from the start. Even with the emergence of Nick Fortes (.319) and the steadiness of Will Golsan (.312) and Tate Blackman (.302), Ole Miss finished the regular season at or near the bottom of the SEC in several offensive categories, including average (.253), hits (459), runs (268) and on-base percentage (.340), while the situational hitting wasn’t much better.

The Rebels hit .257 with runners on, .247 with runners in scoring position and just .125 with the bases loaded, all of which ranked last or next to last in the league.

“You’ve got to have good at-bats,” Blackman said. “You can’t worry about the hits or the amount of runs you produce. It’s that one big hit with one out or no outs with the bases loaded or two outs with the bases loaded. You’ve got to have those key hits in a game to score more runs.”

A pitching staff that ranked at or near the top of the SEC in several categories midway through the season carried the Rebels before running into its own issues late.

Friday night starter James McArthur allowed a combined 26 earned runs in five of his last six starts, pushing his earned run average to 4.73, but the sophomore right-hander wasn’t alone in his struggles. Ole Miss had a starter go deeper than five innings just once in its last 11 games as the Rebels finished in the bottom half of the league with a 4.19 ERA in SEC games.

“I don’t think we pitched well down the stretch, a team that really hung their hat at the beginning of the year on pitching,” Bianco said. “We didn’t play solid enough defense. There were times we could be really good defensively. We were consistently inconsistent. We just didn’t do enough things well time in and time out, and I think that’s the thing that hurts.”

Fresh struggles

Youth was also a factor in the Rebels’ rollercoaster season, which included two wins apiece against regional hosts Southern Miss and Arkansas, a series win over NCAA participant Vanderbilt and sub-100 RPI losses to Memphis, Arkansas State and Georgia State, as Ole Miss leaned heavily on the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.

Shortstop Grae Kessinger, catcher Cooper Johnson, first baseman Cole Zabowski and outfielder/designated hitter Thomas Dillard began the season as starters, but Kessinger and Johnson were the only freshman position players to end it that way. Left-hander Ryan Rolison broke into the weekend rotation after two SEC series and went 6-3 with a 3.06 ERA.

Dillard was expected to be an immediate run producer after leading the nation in home runs during his senior season at nearby Oxford High but hit just .206 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in 45 starts. Kessinger and Johnson were strong defensively but hit just .175 and .210, respectively, though Johnson brought his average up from .137 during the season’s final month.

“A lot of them struggled, which freshmen do,” Bianco said. “But they certainly showed that they can belong, especially when you look at Grae and Cooper behind the plate and the way they played defensively, certainly at times at a very high level and as good as anybody that’s played those positions for us. But they’ve got to get better offensively.”

The newcomers’ transition to their sophomore year comes with the expectation of a step forward in their development, but how many other pieces the Rebels return remains to be seen. Third baseman Colby Bortles is out of eligibility while next month’s MLB First-Year Player Draft could claim some of Ole Miss’ underclassmen and signees.

Whatever the roster looks like next season, there’s plenty of work to do for Ole Miss to get back to the team it’s used to being this time of year.

“I think we’ve got to get better in everything,” Bianco said. “We’ll discuss goals and all of that as the weeks get into the summer time, but we’ve got to be better. There’s no doubt about that.”