OXFORD – Ole Miss baseball was one bad weekend away from losing all postseason hopes.
Now, after a three-game sweep of Missouri, the Rebels (27-19, 10-14 SEC) are in a much better position.
They leapfrogged ahead of Missouri, Kentucky and Mississippi State in the conference standings, putting them above the line to be one of 12 teams that qualify for the SEC Tournament. Now the Rebels are tied in the muddled middle with Alabama and South Carolina, two teams that hold tiebreakers over Ole Miss.
Ole Miss bullied Missouri to snap its four-series losing streak. The Rebels won the opener 7-5, cruised to an 8-1 win Saturday and closed it out Sunday with a 10-2 victory.
The Rebels’ bats awoke for 25 runs on 35 hits and the bullpen dazzled, allowing two earned runs in 11 innings. Freshman Hunter Elliott had a career performance allowing one run in seven innings Saturday and middle-of-the-order bats Kevin Graham and Kemp Alderman had 15 hits combined across three games.
“It’s huge,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “We know the other side of the sweep. It’s really like a two-game swing. The sweeps are huge.”
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On one hand, this is exactly what Ole Miss needed. Its starting pitching stabilized, its offense flooded the bases and scored without being overly-reliant on home runs and its bullpen did not make the ends of games harder than they needed to be. Weaknesses became strengths and kept the season alive.
On the other hand, Missouri (25-20, 7-17) is the worst team in the SEC. The Tigers haven’t won an SEC road game. Their pitchers rank among the SEC’s worst in ERA, batting average against and strikeouts. Their hitters are among the worst in hits, slugging percentage and walks. Ole Miss rose to No. 1 early in the season by clobbering bad teams. That’s exactly what the Rebels did again in the series.
The Rebels clearly improved their postseason outlook. But that has more to do with not losing than it does with winning. After losing four-straight series, Ole Miss just about had to sweep the SEC’s worst team to set itself up to make a run in the last two weeks.
The Rebels’ postseason resume did not improve that much with the sweep. Their RPI went from 61st to 57th. It likely needs to be in the high-30s to matter. That can be achieved.
The Rebels have eight regular season games left. Seven are against teams in the RPI top 20. Beating Missouri is good because it is not bad. Beating Southern Miss, LSU and Texas A&M is the type of thing teams do to earn NCAA Tournament at-large bids.
The good news is the makings of a turnaround are present. Rebels’ starters had a 6.89 ERA in their first 12 SEC games and a 3.90 ERA in the last 12. Relievers John Gaddis and Jack Washburn have thrown 8 ⅓ shutout innings since returning from injury. Graham and Alderman put slumps behind them in recent weeks and bottom-of-the-lineup bats like Peyton Chatagnier seemingly woke up against Missouri.
The problem, again, is evaluating competition. Nine of the last 12 SEC games have come against Missouri, Mississippi State and South Carolina, three teams even with or below the Rebels in the SEC standings.
Which once again leads everything to its natural conclusion: Winning is good. But this weekend’s wins did not prove much. Wins in the next weekend could prove a lot.
“It’s no secret we need to win every single game we can,” Graham said. “I’m proud of the way we played all weekend from the beginning.”
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or email@example.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.