HOOVER — In some ways, Ryan Olenek has been a barometer for the effectiveness of the Ole Miss bullpen.
He made three appearances in a three-week span from the end of February to March 16. He threw a scoreless inning against UT-Martin on February 26, another perfect inning at Louisville on March 13 and surrendered his only run allowed in five appearances three days later against Alabama. Olenek pitched once in the month of April in a loss to North Alabama.
Last Saturday, Olenek made his first appearance in six weeks when he threw a 1-2-3 ninth inning at Tennessee to preserve a 5-4 win, snapping a six-game losing streak and ensuring Ole Miss’ place in the NCAA Tournament. The appearance came a little over a week after he endured a virus so violent he lost 15 pounds and was bed ridden for four days. Olenek’s velocity was down a bit, but he showed good command of his breaking ball and possesses a good changeup.
“I kind of had to psyche myself out when I got out there because I have not done it in so long,” Olenek said. “I needed to give it everything I had. All I knew is that if threw strikes my defense would get outs behind me. We have an incredible defense.”
Olenek has given up one earned run on two hits with five strikeouts and two walks in five innings this season. Why has he not been utilized more? Well, it is a combination of the bullpen being success, followed by ineptitude as well as Olenek’s health.
“Ryan is he’s a guy who at beginning of year we ran him out there a few times and he was getting better, but for several reasons that I blame myself he didn’t pitch much,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “For one since he’s the center fielder it’s harder to use you as the pitcher because you lose the DH. Number two, as we started going after the Louisville 10-8 game where he looked so good, from that point through April Austin Miller had been good and Parker Caracci had been good. The numbers over the month and a half were good.
“And Ryan, to fit him in, he had the hip issue and the virus. It’s been tough to make that happen. And on that Saturday we really needed to throw him for all the reasons I just said.”
Ole Miss’ bullpen has faltered down the homestretch of the season. All-American closer Parker Caracci has surrendered 13 runs (11 earned) in his last four appearances. Austin Miller has been good in spots, but has had a pair of implosions in crucial spots, including in a game two loss to Mississippi State in which he gave up four runs, did not record an out and blew a 4-2 lead in relief of Doug Nikhazy. He responded with three scoreless innings the next day. Tyler Myers has been better after a tough three-week stretch that began in mid-April and and bled into early May. Houston Roth has had a late season resurgence and has been the most reliable option the last two weeks. But the overall point is that the Rebels do not have enough dependable arms in the bullpen to get guys out in high-leverage situations, meaning you will likely see Olenek on the mound in the postseason.
“Maybe those things have changed,” Bianco said. “We need another arm. You’ll see him again this week. He can pitch tomorrow I’m sure. He’s fine after a couple days, but can he pitch Tuesday and Wednesday? I don’t know he’s never had to do that.”
Ole Miss plays Missouri on Tuesday in the opening round of the SEC Tournament in Hoover. Will Ethridge will take the ball for the Rebels and the Tigers will go with Konnor Ash, who threw two scoreless innings in relief when the two teams met in Columbia this year. The Rebels won 3-0 that Saturday but the Tigers won two of three in the series. Ole Miss dodged a bullet with Missouri electing to bypass Friday night starter Jacob Cantleberry and T.J. Sikkema — the Tigers ace who has been their game two starter this season.
Ole Miss enters the 2019 postseason having lost six of seven. The Rebels are likely locked in as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of the results of this week’s tournament in Hoover. But this week could afford the Rebels an opportunity to rectify some of their pitching woes, and, if nothing else, win a couple of games to regain confidence.
“It is a new season now,” Grae Kessinger said. “There is always that added adrenaline. It is a lot of fun, too. It is why you work so hard in the offseason, for postseason play. It is a good time to get rolling.”
— Knox Loposer took batting practice at Hoover Metropolitan stadium on Monday. He has not played since April 27 and is dealing with a stress fracture in his knee. Bianco did not rule out Loposer returning to the lineup this season.
“They have to gauge his pain level,” Bianco said. ” They don’t think it’s ready yet, butt we have to make sure he can hit whenever he can to get ready. If he can get off crutches for 10 minutes, then let’s have him hit for 10 minutes. You shorten that gap and when he’s ready to play it hasn’t been four or five weeks since he’s swung.”