Bulldogs, Rebels fall deeper into a hole after SEC series sweeps

Published 2:16 pm Monday, March 27, 2023

For two years, Mississippi’s Southeastern Conference teams have reigned as the kings of college baseball.

So far this season, they’ve looked more like the court jesters.

Mississippi State and Ole Miss have yet to win a game in their first two SEC series. They don’t have to return the back-to-back national championship trophies they brought back to the Magnolia State, but some of the shine is coming off as the teams fall behind in the conference standings.

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“They’re trying. They’re showing up and they’re competing. But we’ve still got to continue to go,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said after Sunday’s 7-4 loss to Florida. “It’s one thing to show up and keep fighting, but then somebody’s got to make the pitch, somebody’s got to get the big hit, somebody’s got to be the star that day. We’re not getting enough of that. We’re getting close, but not enough to win one of these games.”

Two common threads between the struggles of both Ole Miss (15-9, 0-6 SEC) and Mississippi State (14-11, 0-6) have been pitching and a difficult schedule.

Ole Miss has allowed 55 runs in its six SEC losses, and Mississippi State 90. Both teams were swept by Vanderbilt, which is ranked No. 4 in the country and has won 13 of its last 14 games. The Commodores hit 12 home runs in their three-game sweep of Mississippi State this weekend, including two grand slams by Parker Noland in a 26-3 rout in Friday’s opener.

“Not only is Vanderbilt good, they’re really hot right now. It seems like every mistake we made got hit over the wall this weekend,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis. “I tip my hat to those guys. But we just have to be better.”

The Bulldogs have struggled in a lot of ways, most noticeably in their pitching and defense.

Mississippi State has allowed 195 runs, by far the most of any team in the SEC. Its staff ERA of 6.70 is also the worst in the conference by nearly a full run, and ranks 209th out of 295 NCAA Division I teams.

Besides giving up a lot of earned runs, the Bulldogs have the worst fielding percentage in the SEC (.960) and rank 225th nationally. They lead the league with 35 errors — more than one per game — which has led to 33 unearned runs. Opponents have also stolen 47 bases, which leads the SEC. Alabama is second with 31.

Lemonis noted that the errors and bad pitching go hand in hand, as pitchers have to work harder and throw more to get out of jams they should have already escaped.

“We have to put in some defensive work,” Lemonis said. “There’s just a play or two here and there that’s costing us. It’s costing our pitcher. We have some really good defensive players that just haven’t played to their ability yet.”

The struggles in the field have led to big innings that countered some decent hitting days for the Bulldogs. They scored 15 runs and had 26 hits in the series with Vanderbilt, but gave up multiple runs in 10 of the 25 innings the teams played.

“They’re competing. We’re not playing at the highest level right now. But I give them a lot of credit for showing up and getting after it, and staying after it as a group,” Lemonis said. “There’s some bright spots in there. We’re just giving up crooked numbers, and those crooked numbers are killing us. I’ve got to find a way to get the right guy out there at the right time.”

Ole Miss’ pitchers haven’t been quite as bad as Mississippi State’s, but their team ERA of 5.68 still ranks 11th out of 14 SEC teams. The Rebels scored a respectable 19 runs in their series against No. 2 Florida, but gave up 28.

“It stinks when you get to this point, where you fall into that funk and you’re not playing well. It happens like this, where it happens in a lot of different phases,” Bianco said. “(Saturday) we hit it so well and didn’t pitch well. (Sunday), at least in the first half of the game, we don’t do enough offensively when they opened up the door and probably pitched well enough.”

Things rarely get easier once the SEC schedule begins, and the upcoming stretches for the Bulldogs and Rebels are no exception.

Mississippi State hosts No. 9 South Carolina in a three-game series Friday as it tries to end its school-record 17-game SEC losing streak.

“The character of this team is really strong,” Mississippi State third baseman Connor Hujsak said. “There were guys pulling for one another. I think sometimes some of the mess-ups are guys who are just trying to do too much for the team. We’ve just got to take it pitch by pitch, at-bat by at-bat, and keep grinding it out.”

Ole Miss plays a midweek game against Southern Miss Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Trustmark Park in Pearl, and then will take a road trip to Texas A&M for its next SEC series beginning Friday.

Texas A&M has lost five of its first six SEC games — albeit against No. 1 LSU and No. 10 Tennessee — and, similar to Ole Miss, desperately needs a series win to get things back on track.

“This is a time where it’s easy to point fingers and who’s to blame,” Bianco said. “Is it the coaching? Is it the pitchers? Is it the defense, is it the offense? At the end of the day we all wear the same uniform and we all have to be better.”

• Tuesday, 6 p.m.  – vs. Southern Miss, at Trustmark Park in Pearl (ESPN+)
• Friday, 6 p.m. – at Texas A&M
• Saturday, 7 p.m. – at Texas A&M (TV: SEC Network)
• Sunday, 1 p.m. – at Texas A&M

• Tuesday, 6 p.m.  – vs. Samford
• Friday, 6 p.m. – vs. South Carolina (TV: SEC Network)
• Saturday, 6 p.m. – vs. South Carolina (TV: SEC Network)
• Sunday, 2 p.m. – vs. South Carolina (TV: SEC Network)

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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