Welcome to Starting 9, the Clarion Ledger's weekly look at where Ole Miss baseball stands throughout the 2019 season. Every Monday, we'll touch on the nine biggest topics surrounding the Rebels as the team tries to make a push for Omaha. To read last week's edition, click here.
The SEC Tournament is upon us. Ole Miss will enter the tournament as the No. 7 seed, facing off versus 10th-seeded Missouri on Tuesday.
The Rebels snapped a six-game losing streak on Saturday, winning their regular-season finale versus Tennessee to head into the SEC Tournament on a positive note. But the recency of the losing streak still looms large, and the Rebels have plenty of issues to address before the postseason begins in earnest.
Today, let's take a look at nine questions about the Ole Miss baseball team heading into the second season and try to find some answers that the Rebels might be able to reveal in Hoover this week.
Over Ole Miss' last 10 games, its bullpen has combined to post an ERA of 10.05, blowing two late-inning leads to lose and nearly blowing a third before an extra-inning comeback at LSU. This includes an ERA of 19.80 from closer Parker Caracci, a 9.45 ERA from stopper Austin Miller and ERAs higher than 10.00 from Taylor Broadway, Kaleb Hill and Zack Phillips (if you discount Phillips' appearances as a starter).
So who can be trusted? Well, Miller isn't going anywhere. Despite the high ERA, he's put up a zero in four of his last six outings. He's still going to be coach Mike Bianco's go-to arm. But he'll be competing with junior Houston Roth for that crown, as Roth has thrown eight-consecutive shutout innings dating back to the Rebels' loss to Southern Miss on May 1. And junior Tyler Myers might not be far off as well, as Myers hasn't allowed an earned run in his last four outings, spanning 4.1 innings of work.
And then there's one more arm who might be of service. But let's give him his own section.
A centerfielder who hits .353 by trade, Ryan Olenek doesn't seem the likeliest answer to the Rebels' bullpen issues. But Olenek notched his first career save on Saturday, throwing a shutout, hitless inning to usher Ole Miss to victory. He's made five pitching appearances on the year, posting a 1.80 ERA in five innings with more strikeouts (five) than hits and walks combined (four).
There's no question Ole Miss is going to use Olenek out of the bullpen at some point in the SEC Tournament or in regionals. The questions are when and how. Is Olenek the closer now? Unlikely. Bianco has shown time and time again how much trust he has in Caracci. But being a closer is more than just a nominal responsibility. Olenek (and Roth) have proven recently to be more successful finishing games than Caracci.
Besides, it's easier to use Olenek as a closer when he won't have another at-bat to prepare for than in the middle of a game with a double switch. But either way, expect Olenek's pitching responsibilities to continue to grow now that the games start to matter more.
Bianco revamped his lineup in the final two games of the Tennessee series, moving left fielder Thomas Dillard to the leadoff spot from his regular perch batting cleanup. The move proved successful for Dillard, who batted 5-for-9 with a walk and three runs scored from the top of the order.
Is this lineup here to stay? It's hard to see why not. The Rebels don't sacrifice any run-scoring potential by using Tyler Keenan or Cole Zabowski in the cleanup spot instead of Dillard. And getting Dillard's .440 on-base percentage at the top of the order is more likely to lead to early runs than using Olenek (.417 on-base) or Anthony Servideo (.407 on-base).
Dillard's RBI count is likely to drop. But getting a guy who has 99 walks over the last two seasons into the batter's box to start a game is never a bad idea.
In drawing Missouri for a one-and-done elimination game, Ole Miss might have to contend against the best pitcher the SEC has to offer. The Tigers' left-hander T.J. Sikkema has a 1.32 ERA, has held opponents to a .175 batting average and has struck out 101 batters.
And the aces might not stop there. If Ole Miss defeats Missouri, the Rebels will draw Arkansas, who could choose to throw Isaiah Campbell, a pitcher with a 2.50 ERA and 97 strikeouts this season.
Given how true aces like Mississippi State's Ethan Small and Tennessee's Garrett Stallings have shut out the Rebels in back-to-back weeks, answering against the caliber of arms you'll see in the SEC Tournament could be a huge step heading into the postseason.
Ole Miss has batted .246 versus left-handed pitching this season compared to batting .296 versus right-handed pitching. And wouldn't you know it, Sikkema pitches left-handed.
So what's the plan against a dominant left-hander? Ole Miss has been trying for weeks to figure out a lineup to attack lefties, rotating in players like Tim Elko and Michael Fitzsimmons to try to get more right-handed batters in the game. Obviously it hasn't worked very well. So don't be surprised if Ole Miss decides to go good-on-good and bat its best nine players in Hoover, even if talented left-handers start against them.
Over his last five starts, Ole Miss No. 1 starter Will Ethridge hasn't been as ace-like as the Rebels would've hoped. In 33 innings pitched, Ethridge has allowed 18 earned runs for an ERA of 4.91 and Ole Miss has lost four of its last five series openers.
Ethridge will be on the mound for Ole Miss against Missouri barring a change of plans. Getting him back in rhythm could be the difference between a long run in Hoover and a quick return to Oxford.
As yet another attempt to fortify the lineup against left-handed pitching, Ole Miss has relied on freshman second baseman Justin Bench quite a bit over the last two weeks. He's batted 0-for-6 with three strikeouts and a double play grounded into.
Senior second baseman Jacob Adams hasn't been much better, batting 2-for-16 with four strikeouts over the same period. Offensive production at second base has been virtually non-existent this season since Serivdeo moved to the outfield. Will Bench or Adams be able to break this slump and provide offense from the No. 9 hole this week? Yet to be seen. But a development like that would be huge.
Namely here, we're talking about pitchers. Freshmen starters Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund will likely be called on if the Rebels advance to the double-elimination portion of the SEC Tournament. Pitching in Hoover for the first time is never easy. Nikhazy seems like a prime candidate to thrive, given the way he's thrown on the road this season and his steely demeanor. Hoglund too is coming off one of the best starts of his career and could carry confidence into the tournament.
Strong outings from those two could be the x-factor if Ole Miss wants to repeat as SEC Tournament champions. Speaking of...
If the previous eight questions are answered, Ole Miss could wins some games and have a chance to repeat as SEC Tournament champions. What's the path? It's as follows: Beat Missouri. That forces a matchup with Arkansas. With a win, face Georgia, Texas A&M or Florida. Win that game and advance to the semifinals. Lose that game and face Arkansas again, or Georgia, Texas A&M or Florida. Face one of those teams again in the semifinals if advancing.
The other side of the bracket includes Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.