Lessons from the game: Ole Miss’ Bianco, Roth notch quality win

Published 7:42 am Friday, March 2, 2018

We watch sports for the end result. But sometimes, the biggest victories and most inspiring lessons are embedded in the midst, somewhere between start and finish when the ultimate winner remains in doubt.

Take an evening at Swayze Field this past week, with Ole Miss hosting Murray State in a seemingly harmless non-conference Tuesday baseball game. The Rebels were nationally ranked. The Racers were hopeful upstarts.

On the mound for the Rebels was Oxford’s own Houston Roth, the sophomore pitcher who made freshman All-American as a reliever last year but has been moved into a weekday starting role by head coach Mike Bianco.

Weekday games like this one against Murray State are critical for Ole Miss because last year the Rebels dropped too many to teams like Memphis and Arkansas State and they got left out of the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection despite a high RPI from playing in the SEC.

This year, the Rebels aim to be more competitive on Tuesday nights, thus the importance of Roth’s presence as a starting pitcher.

But it didn’t look too good early in the game against Murray State. Roth was throwing hard, hitting 92 miles per hour fastballs.

In the first inning, his teammates in the field misplayed what should have been a routine fly ball to the outfield. Another Murray State batted worked him over with foul balls until he got enough balls to take first base. Roth let another pitch get too sweet, and a Racer batter named Sims launched it out of the park before there was a single out.

Ouch.

We looked over at Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, who looked only at Roth, without batting an eye toward creating action in the Rebel bullpen.

We looked at Roth, with his parents and hundreds of friends and supporters in the stands pulling for him, and he walked the mound with head held high and no signs of being shaken. It’s at this moment that a starting pitcher usually crumbles, of course. They will start holding onto the ball too tightly, driving a curveball into the dirt, or sailing a fastball up, up and away.

Roth still had had his stuff, but before the first inning of the game was over Murray State had belted another doubled, ripped hard off the right field wall, and scored another run to take a 4-0 lead before Ole Miss had even come to bat.

It was clear what had transpired in Mike Bianco’s mind. The coach, too, saw that Roth never flinched despite the mistake in the field and Murray State’s hard and timely hits. He knew that if he pulled his starting pitcher, a pitcher he desperately needs if Ole Miss is to make a deep run this season nationally, that it would send the wrong message to the sophomore.

It was the eighth game of the season, better to send a strong supportive message to Roth. So, Bianco never flinched. He decided to confidently stick with his starter.

Roth, for his part, never flinched either. He came out for the second inning with the same confidence and resolve he showed at the start of the game. His fastball was still fast, hitting 92. His breaking ball was still breaking, to the right spot. His parents and friends were still there, cheering.

And, he began to knock out one batter after another.

Roth ended up working five complete innings, his longest outing yet as a Rebel pitcher. He didn’t give up another run. And get this: Roth, the confident pitcher, struck out six Murray State batters.

By the time the night finished, Ole Miss had pulled off a dramatic 7-6 walk-off win, with another Oxford resident, Thomas Dillard, scoring the winning run.

But long before the final score, both coach Bianco and Roth, his young pitcher, had notched quality wins that won’t show up in the scorebook. They will, however, serve the team well this long season.

David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. He can be reached at david.magee@oxfordeagle.com.