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Ole Miss puts SEC’s top pitching staff up against potent Arkansas bats in top-5 showdown

Ole Miss’ never-say-die attitude has served the Rebels well all season and particularly of late.

The fourth-ranked Rebels, who already have 10 come-from-behind victories, rallied for two wins at then-No. 12 Texas A&M last weekend before erasing a 5-0 deficit in their fourth straight one-run game Tuesday, a 7-6 victory over No. 14 Southern Miss. The series win over the Aggies has Ole Miss tied atop the SEC’s Western Division standings with No. 5 Arkansas, setting up an early tussle for first place this weekend when the teams clash in a Thursday-Saturday series at Oxford-University Stadium that will pit strength against strength.

For Ole Miss (23-3, 4-2 SEC), that’s a pitching staff that enters the weekend second in the league in earned run average (2.64) and first in strikeouts  (264) while leading the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.83). Ryan Rolison has the highest ERA among the weekend starters at 2.88 while the emergence of right-hander Parker Caracci has further added to the depth of a bullpen that’s allowed just six earned runs in its last 36 ⅔ innings.

“Same as it has been every other week,” Caracci said of the pitchers’ mindset heading into this week’s games. “Make pitches, hit your spots, do everything you’re supposed to do and give us the best chance that we have the win.”

Arkansas (18-7, 4-2) will counter with an offense that’s been one of the nation’s best.

The Razorbacks are second in the SEC in average (.311), runs (8.4 per game), slugging percentage (.537) and on-base percentage (.422) while their 47 home runs trail only Tennessee Tech’s 51 for the national lead. Freshman Heston Kjerstad (.395) leads six Arkansas regulars hitting .329 or better and is one of four players with at least six home runs for the Razorbacks, who scored 39 runs in their sweep of then-No. 4 Kentucky to start SEC play before dropping two of three to then-No. 2 Florida in Gainesville last weekend.

Arkansas averaged just four runs against Florida (2.93 ERA) in its first look at the kind of arms that are comparable to what the Razorbacks will see from Ole Miss, though it will still be a formidable task for an Ole Miss rotation looking to bounce back from its worst collective showing of the season.

Rolison (3-2), the SEC leader in strikeouts, gave up four runs in four innings his last time out while Brady Feigl (5-1, 2.08 ERA) yielded a season-high five earned runs in 6 ⅓ innings in Ole Miss’ lone loss to A&M on Friday. James McArthur (3-0, 1.93) lasted just 1 ⅓ innings — by far his shortest outing of the season — on Saturday.

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said he didn’t want his starters focusing too much on those outliers against A&M, which made more contact than most teams have against the Rebels with 17 two-strike hits charted by the coaching staff.

“Sometimes I think we got frustrated with that,” Bianco said. “We’ve been striking out so many people that when you don’t get a strikeout and you don’t even get a ground ball or a pop-up, the guy gets a base hit, I think that got to us a little bit, especially the starters. … I think we’ve got to be ourselves, just trust our stuff and compete to win the game. And that’s it.”

But both teams have shown the ability to hit it and pitch it.

The Rebels enter the weekend hitting .300 as a team with 31 home runs after hitting just 47 long balls all of last season. With two of the SEC’s hottest hitters in Chase Cockrell (.421) and Thomas Dillard (15-game hitting streak), Ole Miss has been particularly effective late, outscoring the opposition 14-4 from the seventh inning on in its last four games.

Arkansas will try to neutralize that with a staff that’s in the middle of the pack in the SEC with a 3.55 ERA. Top-100 draft prospect Blaine Knight (4-0, 1.83), who will oppose Rolison on Thursday, is the best of the bunch having allowed just seven earned runs through his first six starts with 35 strikeouts in 34 ⅓ innings.

Regardless of the level of competition, the Rebels don’t plan on straying too far from what’s worked in helping them win 23 of their first 26 games.

“Stay consistent,” outfielder Will Golsan said. “We’ve been swinging it well and pitching it well. That’s what we’re going to try to keep doing over the week and into the weekend.”

First pitch for the games Thursday and Friday is set for 6:30 p.m. The teams will wrap up the series Saturday at 1:30 p.m.