Rebels poised for NCAA tourney run

The Ole Miss Rebels have been a model of consistency under ninth-year coach Mike Bianco, qualifying for eight NCAA Tournaments, playing host to four consecutive NCAA regionals, winning one SEC Tournament championship and playing in three NCAA Super Regionals.

A big obstacle, however, remains.

Ole Miss, which shares the SEC overall lead with LSU and Florida, is still looking for its first College World Series appearance since 1972. The Rebels again look like a contender on that front, sporting a 36-13 overall record heading into this weekend’s SEC series with Mississippi State.

 

 

 

Ole Miss, which swept Auburn over the weekend at Plainsman Park, is ranked seventh nationally by Baseball America.

“It’s nice to be recognized,” Bianco said, “but at the end of the day, it doesn’t get you any closer to your goals.”

The Rebels’ goals, Bianco said, remain the same from year to year. They include:

n Win at least 40 games;

n Win the SEC title;

n Play host to an NCAA regional tournament;

n Do the same for a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional;

n Reach the College World Series;

n And win the national championship.

No SEC team has won the national title since Skip Bertman’s LSU Tigers in 2000, although Georgia, Florida and South Carolina have all finished as the runner-up since then. LSU, which reached the CWS last year, is poised to make another run at Omaha under third-year coach Paul Mainieri.

The Tigers, like Ole Miss, are 36-13 overall and 16-8 in the SEC. They’ll play host to SEC East-leading Florida this weekend at the new Alex Box Stadium.

In Oxford, meanwhile, Ole Miss will be looking to keep pace with LSU in the SEC West. The Tigers took two of three games from Ole Miss earlier this season in Baton Rouge, so they’d have the tie-breaker for seeding purposes in the SEC Tournament.

Mississippi State, on the other hand, is just looking to finish strong under first-year coach John Cohen. The Bulldogs (21-26 overall, 6-17 in the SEC) aren’t mathematically eliminated from SEC Tournament contention, but they’ve lost five straight and are clearly scrambling to stay afloat.

“We’re just going to have to pitch better,” Cohen said. “It’s no secret. We’re just not getting enough people out. The infield defense hasn’t been what we’ve wanted, but the kids are giving great effort.

“Right now, we just don’t have all the pieces together to compete. But I know we’re going to get it figured out.”

Ole Miss has hit 44 home runs, less than half the total put up by Auburn (97), Alabama (94) and Georgia (91), but the Rebels have speed at the top of their lineup and an ability to produce with men on base.

The Rebels rely on good pitching and rank second among SEC teams in earned-run average (3.95) and strikeouts (462). Senior right-hander Scott Bittle, an All-America closer last season, has been the Sunday starter for Ole Miss and given Bianco’s squad stability in its pitching rotation.

“This is a club that has a chance to do well in the postseason,” Bianco said, “but it understands you have to take care of business.”

Ole Miss closes SEC regular-season play next week at Arkansas, while State will face LSU at home in its final SEC series. LSU took two of three games from Arkansas over the weekend, winning the third game 4-3.

“From a media standpoint, everybody’s looking at the finish line,” Bianco said. “One of the things we’ve always talked about is taking it one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. It’s easier said than done.

“You can waste a lot of energy trying to figure it all out. The last day (in SEC play), it’ll sort itself out.”

 

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