‘Never out of the fight,’ Ole Miss thriving in season’s competitive environment

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Ole Miss faced its largest deficit of the season just three innings into its top-15 matchup with Southern Miss last Tuesday. Yet the Rebels seemingly had the Golden Eagles right where they wanted them.

The Rebels put a dent in the deficit with a three-spot in the fourth inning before putting two on base in the seventh for cleanup hitter Thomas Dillard, who finished off Ole Miss’ rally from five runs down with a go-ahead, three-run bomb that sent Ole Miss to a 7-6 win — one of the many displays of resiliency that’s quickly becoming a hallmark for a team that’s found itself down far more often than the four times it’s lost through the first half of the season but never out.

“With this team, we always have that bullet in the gun,” pitcher Houston Roth said. “We’re never out of the fight.”

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Of Ole Miss’ 25 wins — tied for most in the nation — nearly half (11) have been of the comeback variety, including each of their last five. And all of those have come by a run, including an 11-10 win Saturday that backended a series victory over then-No. 5 Arkansas to move Ole Miss to a No. 3 national ranking and into sole possession of first place in the Western Division after three SEC weekends.

Ole Miss (25-4, 6-3 SEC) will start a regional four-game road trip Wednesday at Memphis (9-19), a team the Rebels beat 8-6 in the first meeting Feb. 20, before heading to Starkville for a Friday-Sunday series against rival Mississippi State.

“Our team is just insane this year,” Dillard said. “No matter what the score is, we’re ready to jump on it.”

Outside of an outlier at Texas A&M in which the starters combined to log just 11 ⅔ innings, Ole Miss’ rotation has largely been as good as advertised in helping the Rebels lead the SEC in earned run average (2.81) with a strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.83) that continues to be tops in the nation. But a deep bullpen has done its fair share of heavy lifting.

Will Ethridge, Will Stokes, Greer Holston, Dallas Woolfolk and Parker Caracci have handled a bulk of the relief innings in league play while Roth, in just his second relief appearance this season, hurled five innings of one-run ball against Southern Miss. The fact that five runs has been Ole Miss’ largest deficit to this point is a testament to the arms’ ability to keep the Rebels close enough all season to eventually strike with a lineup that’s blended more consistency with additional power.

“You know it doesn’t matter if you’re down four, they’re going to keep you in it,” outfielder Will Golsan said. “It’s going to give us a chance to win.”

After finishing last season near the bottom of the SEC in several offensive categories, Ole Miss is third in the league in average (.298) and in the middle of the pack in runs (193) with seven regulars hitting .306 or better. The Rebels also have 35 home runs after hitting 47 all of last season.

There have been some adjustments in approach, but a year’s worth of experience for some second-year players is spearheading the improvement. Chase Cockrell is hitting a team-best .403 as the everyday designated hitter while Dillard (.306) is leading the team in home runs (7) and RBIs (27) after hitting .206 with just four homers last season in 45 starts as a freshman. Cole Zabowski, another member of Ole Miss’ heralded 2017 recruiting class, has matched Dillard’s home run total while hitting .324 in his first season as a full-time starter.

“Guys are swinging it well and getting a lot of good swings off,” said Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, whose 2017 team didn’t win its 25th game until April 23. “Certainly we have a physical lineup. You just look at the bodies that go up there, but the biggest difference I see is we’re better hitters than we were a year ago. Statistically, you’re giving yourself much better shots and guys are getting good swings off, confident swings, and it’s a good mix.”

Hits as timely as Dillard’s dinger have helped. Zabowski’s solo homer Saturday gave Ole Miss its first lead against the Razorbacks while Tyler Keenan gave momentum back to the Rebels in the seventh with a three-run homer, which proved to be the decisive blow in Ole Miss’ latest comeback after the teams combined for 19 runs in the last four innings.

“It’s really actually kind of ridiculous because when we don’t pitch it good, the offense swings it even better. It’s really cool,” right-hander James McArthur said. “Shows how tough we are that even if the bullpen doesn’t come in and quite get the job done, we’re able to keep punching back with our offense.”

Said outfielder Ryan Olenek, “We just compete. It doesn’t really matter what situation, we don’t really give away at-bats.”

Falling behind before eventually catching up has made for some closely contested games in the end, particularly in SEC play. All six games against then-No. 12 Texas A&M, which Ole Miss rallied to take two of three from the previous weekend, and Arkansas were decided by two runs or less with all but one of them being one-run games.

Ole Miss has found a way to finish more often than not, particularly with the emergence of the hard-throwing Caracci at the end of games. The third-year sophomore has recorded five of his six saves in the last seven games while allowing just two earned runs and tallying 38 strikeouts in 20 ⅓ innings this season.

The Rebels have already matched their win total in one-run games from all of last season with eight of them in the season’s first month and a half.

“You don’t have in the SEC too many 10-1 games or 12-2,” Bianco said. “More of them are like what we’ve played, and you’ve got to be tough enough to handle it.”

Ole Miss has done that so far, even if it hasn’t always been conventional.

“You can kind of feel the vibe in the dugout that we’re starting to realize just how tough and how good we are,” McArthur said. “We’ve just got to stick together, keep practicing every day to get better and hopefully it will work out for us.”