Leo “The Lip” Durocher once said: “Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.”
Count me in the few — and maybe that’s why I love it so.
Baseball confounds us as no other sport. Every time we think we understand, we learn we don’t. Take this season in Mississippi college baseball. Go ahead. Step back. Take a look.
Mississippi State came into the season as college baseball’s defending national champion and with several key players back. Ole Miss, with a lineup filled with proven sluggers, was ranked No. 1 in the nation this season back in March. Meanwhile, after losing probably its top three pitchers from last season, Southern Miss dropped to an unimpressive 10-6 record after being swept by Dallas Baptist in mid-March.
So here we are, in late April, and look: Southern Miss is ranked No. 4 in the nation and is on a school record 15-game win streak heading into a weekend series at UAB. After starting 9-0 and 12-1, Ole Miss is 14-17 in its last 31 games and in danger of not even making the SEC Tournament. Mississippi State is 24-18 and has much work to do – and not that much time to do it – to even make the NCAA field. Meanwhile, most college baseball experts now rank Southern Miss as a high national seed.
If you predicted all this back in mid-March, good for you. Nobody else did.
Let’s take a look at where all three stand heading into the last month of the regular season:
We’ll start with Southern Miss, where Scott Berry might well have the best team in school history. Southern Miss is 33-8 overall and 16-2 in its last season in Conference USA. The Golden Eagles’ RPI now sits at No. 10. Probably more impressive than the 15-game overall win streak is the fact Southern Miss has won 12 straight road games. The Eagles also boast a 15-7 record against team ranked in the top 100, RPI-wise. Only Tennessee, which is playing like a Major League team against college competition, has won more games than Southern Miss.
The challenge for Southern Miss is to stay hot through May and into June. Recent injuries will make that difficult. Left fielder Reese Ewing, a productive .304 hitter with 29 runs batted in and eight home runs, is out with a broken hand and could miss another two to three weeks. Designated hitter Slade Wilks (.319, six homers, 15 doubles) has missed four straight games with a strained oblique muscle but should be back soon.
But here’s the deal: Pitching – three terrific weekend starters and a deep, talented bullpen – are what has carried Berry’s team. Berry, who should become the Golden Eagles all-time winningest coach this weekend, knows how quickly all that can turn around in baseball. And if he doesn’t, he can just look north to Oxford and Starkville.
Both Ole Miss and State desperately needed to get on a roll headed into last weekend’s Ole Miss-State weekend series and Tuesday night’s Governor’s Cup. Neither did. They split the four games, two victories apiece and still have mountains of work to do over the last month.
Let’s take Ole Miss first. The Rebels are 23-17 overall, 6-12 in the SEC (ahead of only Missouri), have a No. 62 RPI and a 7-14 record against Top 100 RPI teams. What has happened? The Rebels haven’t pitched it well enough and they haven’t hit well when it matters most.
They are not dead in the water but they are floundering. They have 14 games remaining, beginning with three this weekend at Arkansas. They need to win that series – a difficult task – and also win SEC series against Missouri (home), at LSU and at home with Texas A&M. That would get the Rebels easily into the SEC Tournament and get that RPI up into NCAA Tournament range. A May 11 road non-conference game at Southern Miss is also an opportunity for an RPI boost. Bottom line: There is little, if any, room for error where Ole Miss is concerned.
Mississippi State shares that leaking boat. The Bulldogs are 24-18, 8-10 in the SEC. They have a No. 81 RPI and an 11-15 record against Top 100 teams. Frankly, none of that is NCAA Tournament-worthy and State must turn it around fast in order to have the opportunity to defend its national championship. Like Ole Miss, the Bulldogs have 14 games remaining, including road series against Missouri and Texas A & M and home series against Florida and Tennessee. The Dogs have midweek games remaining at Samford and at home against North Alabama.
This weekend’s series with Florida and a regular season-ending series with top-ranked Tennessee (currently a ridiculous 38-3) will give the Bulldogs an excellent opportunity to boost their NCAA resume. They might well need it.
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