Big road series against a ranked opponent were the theme of the weekend for the Diamond Rebels – softball visited Alabama; baseball visited Texas A&M.
Ole Miss softball continued their brutal start to SEC play with another ranked opponent, this one being Alabama. Ole Miss softball entered the weekend 1-5 in SEC play; they desperately needed something to go right.
As for their baseball comrades, they kicked off a merciless two-week stretch that will see them face three ranked opponents. Ole Miss baseball visited Texas A&M this past weekend, with a home midweek bout against a ranked Southern Miss and a home weekend series against top-5 Arkansas on the horizon.
The SEC softball schedule is a gauntlet, and that might be an understatement. Last year, Ole Miss hosted a Regional and nearly won a Super Regional, despite having a losing overall record in conference play.
Mike Smith’s team visited Alabama, needing to win a conference series in the worst of ways. Sitting at 1-5, staring down a (potential) seemingly-insurmountable hole in conference play, the Rebels needed to win the series in Tuscaloosa, but absolutely could not afford to get swept.
Alabama, a team Ole Miss had only beaten in Tuscaloosa once prior to this weekend, needed wins, too. After dropping two-of-three to Auburn last weekend, the Crimson Tide had to protect their home turf, so to speak. It’s Omaha or bust for Alabama, and a 2-4 or 1-5 start to conference play would not mesh will with the Crimson Tide’s expectations.
Now to the actual games, Alabama ultimately took the series on Sunday (we’ll get to that later), but Friday and Saturday’s games were increasingly weird, and not because they were overly-dramatic from being close contests. No, the Crimson Tide won 13-1 Friday, and Ole Miss won 10-3 on Saturday.
Friday and Saturday’s action featured eerily similar starts in the top of the first inning – Ole Miss loaded the bases and scored their first run because the right fielder misplayed a deep flyball off the bat of Autumn Gillespie. However, the Rebels only scored the one run on Friday, which was their only run of the weekend. The Crimson Tide responded with one in the first, four in the third and eight in the fifth, run-ruling Ole Miss after five innings.
As for Saturday, the Rebels sent Kaitlin Lee to the circle, hoping to even the series. However, her entrance to the game would be delayed by the theatrics of the top of the first inning.
Ole Miss had Kylan Becker up to bat with runners on second and third and one out, up 2-0. Becker slapped a routine grounder to Demi Moore at second, who promptly tossed out Celeste Wood on a close play at home. Then, all hell broke loose. Kylan Becker attempted to take second on the throw, but someone was in the way of the bag. Becker bulldozed said defender, forcing her to drop the ball. Becker was originally ruled out. On the throw and subsequent collision at second, Autumn Gillespie scampered home from third. Mike Smith, seeing Kylan Becker called out, sprinted towards the second base umpire immediately to argue, and oh boy, did he ever. Smith not only convinced the umpires that Becker was safe, but also that Autumn Gillespie should be allowed to score. Not to be outdone, Alabama’s Patrick Murphy came out on the field to argue that, no, Autumn Gillespie is supposed to be sent back to third base. He won his argument, and Gillespie was sent back to third. That is, until the umpires had to break the news to Mike Smith. Smith was not pleased. However, he prevailed again, as he once again convinced the umpires that Autumn Gillespie should score (he may have added a few ‘adjectives’). So after eight minutes of furious debating, Mike Smith got everything he wanted.
Brittany Finney put a loud stamp on the inning with a two-run rocket to left field. Ole Miss would go on to win the game 10-3.
Back to the officials for a moment, they were a problem (to the coaches) for most of the weekend. The ever-controversial new slapping rule reared its ugly head in Tuscaloosa on numerous occasions.
“The panel approved a rule prohibiting batters from having any part of their foot touch the ground outside the lines of the batter’s box when bat-ball contact is made. If a batter violates this rule, she will be declared out.”
Alabama had a slapper called out. Ole Miss had multiple slappers called out, and at least one in every game. Kylan Becker had a double taken away on Saturday – her infraction was questionable.
Each coach spent countless minutes working the refs, pleading for consistency with the rule and to influence future calls. Patrick Murphy made trips out of the dugout in the top of the first on both Friday and Saturday, each time to protest a slapper.
Finally, Sunday’s game: Alabama won on a walkoff single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning. Kylan Becker and Kaylee Horton each scored for Ole Miss. Horton singled and later scored in the first inning, while Kylan Becker hit a one-hopper to the wall in the second, resulting in a standup triple. Alabama’s Kaylee Tow went yard in the third, and the scoring went silent for a while.
Kaitlin Lee relieved Anna Borgen in the fourth inning with two on and no outs. Ole Miss then showed signs of the Ole Miss from last season – tantalizing defensive plays and pure, raw emotion. Kylan Becker charged in for a diving catch in shallow center and doubled up the runner at second. The next batter, Paige McKinney made a diving snag of her own up the middle to end the threat.
Later, Alex Schneider made a diving snag on a bunt of all things, nixing an Alabama threat before it began. She added a sliding catch while sliding into the dugout in later action.
Still, Alabama was determined; they caused stress to the Ole Miss defense in every inning from the fourth inning on. In the bottom of the seventh, the law of averages won. Alabama, who lost a series to the Rebels last season on two walkoffs, enacted a measure of revenge, crushing the hearts of Ole Miss with a 1-out single up the middle that plated two, resulting in a 3-2 win.
The series – it’s high highs and low lows – was symbolic of the Rebels’ 2018 season: disappointing. Ole Miss has beaten the Goliath (Oregon), but they haven’t found the consistency necessary as of this moment due to youth and new faces in key positions, which is understandable considering essentially every one in the lineup who isn’t a slapper is a new addition to the lineup.
Next weekend, they got a ranked Auburn at home, so the competition will not be getting easier. The SEC is a trial by fire for young players, and Ole Miss is just going to have to endure the tribulations of that trial to grow as a team and become an Oklahoma City contender once again.
Weekend Lineup if it was me:
Pitcher – Starters: Kaitlin Lee Friday; Anna Borgen Saturday; Ava Tillman Sunday | Relief: Morgan Bruce and Brittany Finney
Lineup: 1) Elantra Cox (LF); 2) Kaylee Horton (2B); 3) Celeste Woof (RF); 4) Autumn Gillespie (C); 5) Abbey Latham (DP); 6) Kylan Becker (CF); 7) Paige McKinney (SS); 8) Alex Schneider (1B); (9) Ally Mena (3B)
Alternate Lineup: 1) Elantra Cox (LF); 2) Kaylee Horton (RF); 3) Kylan Becker (CF); 4 Autumn Gillespie (C); 5) Celeste Wood (DP); 6 Paige McKinney (SS); 7) Amanda Roth (3B); 8) Alex Schneider (1B); 9) Ally Mena (2B)
The Rebels visited Texas A&M for a matchup of top-12 teams in College Station. Ole Miss took two-of-three in College Station, winning a highly-contested and stressful series that had the feel of a Super Regional for the ages.
I already released my weekend journal on Ole Miss baseball, but I’ll touch on them again – and offer more in-depth insight. To access the journal, click here.
Mike Bianco’s squad had about as disappointing of a starting pitching weekend as they could imagine, especially from Ryan Rolison and James McArthur, but they took the series anyways, thanks to a gaudy bullpen and an offense that never stops.
Rolison and McArthur combined to pitch just 5.1 innings, allowing 5 earned runs. Rolison lasted 4 innings, while McArthur was relieved after just 1.1 innings, as Mike Bianco was doing anything to avoid A&M having the explosive, crooked-number inning that doomed his team on Friday night.
Brady Feigl didn’t have a start he’ll tell his future children and grandchildren about, but he won the series for Ole Miss, even in a losing effort. After giving up a 4-run second inning, Feigl battled into the seventh inning and allowed just one more run, nullifying the potential for bullpen overuse.
Feigl’s composure to make it out of a nightmare inning and limit the damage allowed Mike Bianco to rely heavily on his bullpen Saturday.
Will Ethridge and Parker Caracci combined for five innings on Thursday, but Bianco was able to rely on Greer Holston and Will Stokes Friday, though the Rebels lost to Texas A&M by one run.
Saturday, Ethridge (2) and Caracci (1) threw another three-combined innings to salt away the late innings and an Ole Miss baseball victory.
Parker Caracci was the story of the weekend, plain and simple. The embattled Caracci, who has suffered unimaginable life tragedies, has exploded onto the scene in this his third season with the Rebels, though he didn’t make the 35-man roster the two previous years. Parker, riding a plus fastball with a natural late movement, shut down the Aggies twice, earning two saves that required nerves of steel.
It’s not easy to move Dallas Woolfolk, a preseason All-American, out of the main closer role, but Parker Caracci did just that in College Station, for one weekend at least. Caracci’s emergence gives Bianco two nearly-unhittable closers, which will be a weapon in the postseason and key SEC games. Mike Bianco can now basically flip a coin and pick a guy to get his team out of a jam in, say, the sixth inning, while still having a closer with nerves of steel for the 9th.
As for the offense, extra-base hits were the name of the weekend – as well as young guys showing this season will be different than last. Cole Zabowski, Thomas Dillard, Grae Kessinger, Chase Cockrell and a whole host of others struggled at the plate last season. That was not the case this weekend. Zabowski was 4-for-10 with two RBI’s, a home run and a double; Dillard has a 14-game hitting streak; Kessinger kept the offense on track, having a productive weekend in the leadoff slot; and Chase Cockrell 5-for-8 with two runs scored and an RBi in the final two games of the series.
The starting pitching is truly one of the best staffs in the country, despite a rough weekend. They will be better. Ryan Rolison is a first-round draft pick; Brady Feigl is a seasoned veteran who just gets better; and James McArthur has already saved multiple series for Ole Miss in 2018. Pitchers have bad weekends, it happens, but the Rebels have the luxury of having the best bullpen in the nation. Because of this, the starting pitchers don’t have to always be perfect. Mike Bianco can string games along, and feel confident in doing so, when a starter experiences the occasional strugglefest.
Lineups for the weekend:
Weekend Starters Rolison (Friday); Feigl (Saturday); McArthur (Sunday)
Midweek Starters: Houston Roth; Jordan Fowler
Lineup w/ Cooper Johnson Catching: 1) Grae Kessinger (SS); 2) Ryan Olenek (RF); 3) Nick Fortes (1B); 4 Thomas Dillard (LF); 5) Will Golsan (CF); 6) Chase Cockrell/Cole Zabowski (DH);7) Tyler Keenan (3B); 8) Cooper Johnson (C); 9) Jacob Adams (2B)
Lineup w/ Nick Fortes Catching: 1) Grae Kessinger (SS); 2) Ryan Olenek (RF); 3) Nick Fortes (C); 4) Thomas Dillard (LF); 5) Will Golsan (CF); 5=6) Chase Cockrell (DH); 7) Cole Zabowski (1B); 8) Tyler Keenan (3B); 9) Jacob Adams (2B)
Mike Bianco favored the latter of the two lineups this weekend, as putting Nick Fortes at catcher allows him to sneak more consistently dangerous bats into the lineup.