Friday Bases Loaded: What to watch for as Ole Miss opens SEC play

Published 7:41 am Friday, March 15, 2019

The non-conference season is over – it’s time for the big boys to come out to play. Ole Miss will still play midweek, non-conference games from here on out, but weekends are now populated with SEC play. Starting Friday, it’s ten straight weekend SEC series for Ole Miss. As Alabama comes to town, we’ll take a quick look back at the midweek and name a few things to keep your eyes focused.

First base: Can any positives be drawn from the Louisville series?

Ole Miss went to Kentucky earlier in the week, dropping two games to No. 14 Louisville midweek. It wasn’t the prettiest series, going 0-2, losing one game on a walk-off and allowing ten runs in the other, but they battled.

The bats have struggled midweek for Ole Miss against good teams. They nearly got no-hit last week to ECU and left Louisville with 14 total hits in two games. It wasn’t a pretty offensive performance, but they showed resiliency. Ole Miss scored three in the seventh inning Tuesday to tie the game, before losing in extras. Wednesday they scored five runs in the final two innings, but were unable to overcome the large hole they created early.

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At some level, the bats are always going to hit, but if they dig themselves into deep enough holes early it becomes difficult to overcome.

Second Base: Solving first inning issues

The Rebels gave up seven first-inning runs to Louisville in two games. Starting games slowly has been a consistent issue for Ole Miss. Before heading to Louisville, the Rebels endured a series with UAB in which they committed eight errors in the first two innings of play over three games.

“It’s kind of been our kryptonite. The first inning. I think it’s just being ready. It’s being ready when we step on the field,” said catcher Cooper Johnson. “I think a lot of times guys get a little sped up… we need to get more consistent on the mound and on the field.”

Errors were less of an issue early in Louisville, they committed one in the first inning of game two, but pitching was more problematic. Houston Roth lasted just 0.2 innings in his start on Wednesday. That’s not going to cut it entering SEC play.

“We have to pitch better at the beginning of the games. We have to get more length out of our starters,” head coach Mike Bianco said Wednesday.

Third base: Is Zack Phillips’ slider sustainably effective?

Ole Miss’ Saturday starter, Zack Phillips, debuted a new pitch last Saturday. After teaching himself a slider over a course of just a handful of days, Phillips had by far his best outing last Saturday. In his last start he went seven innings, giving up just one run.

“I started working on a new pitch on Monday, a slider. Today was the first time I threw it in a game,” Phillips said last Saturday. “My curveball and my fastball are on different planes. I wanted a pitch that was kind of on the same plane as my fastball but on the end it broke.”

The pitch was remarkably effective. He threw it around 15 times last week, nearly all for strikes. However, this week isn’t UAB, it’s Alabama. Saturday’s start against SEC pitching will prove just how effective the new pitch is, and if it’s good enough for the starter who has struggled before UAB to not be a weak link in the rotation.

At the plate: Kevin Graham  

Literally, Kevin Graham is at the plate. After being used exclusively as a pinch hitter to start the year, making just four appearances in the first twelve games, true freshman Kevin Graham has now seen five consecutive starts as the Ole Miss designated hitter.

Graham had a really good weekend against UAB, getting four RBIs and a homerun in three games, and was up-and-down in Louisville. Graham went 2-3 with an RBI in the 4-3 loss on Tuesday and 0-4 on Wednesday.   

Graham has seemingly solidified himself in the role previously occupied by Tim Elko, who started the year 0-12 and is hitting just .194. Elko hit a home run in pinch hitting duties in Louisville, so maybe he’ll see his role increase, but Graham has been steady and consistent in that role.

Ole Miss kicks off the Alabama series Friday at 6:30 p.m. In what’s been a rare occurrence in Oxford since the start of baseball season, the games look to be played as they’re scheduled as the weather looks advantageous.