FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — For the first time in five years, the Ole Miss baseball team finds itself within two wins of the College World Series.
No. 12 Ole Miss begins play in the Fayetteville Super Regional on Saturday, taking on familiar foe Arkansas on Saturday at 11 a.m. on ESPN. Saturday's game will mark the sixth meeting of the year between the Rebels and Razorbacks, with Ole Miss holding a 3-2 win advantage and outscoring the Razorbacks by three runs across the five games.
What will Ole Miss need to do to repeat its winning ways against Arkansas and return to Omaha for the College World Series for the first time since 2014? Let's break down five keys to success for the Rebels this weekend.
Since the start of the SEC Tournament, few teams in the country have had a 1-2 punch of starting pitchers quite as productive and dominant as Ole Miss' duo of Will Ethridge and Doug Nikhazy. Across their last five appearances, four starts, Ethridge and Nikhazy have combined to post a 1.14 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP with 21 strikeouts in 31.2 innings pitched.
Ethridge has completed seven innings in each of his last two starts. Nikhazy has finished eight innings his last two times out. If Ole Miss' pair of aces can pitch the way it has as of late, both limiting runs and preserving bullpens late into games, the Rebels should be in a good position to win.
All that said, pitching well against Missouri, Texas A&M, Jacksonville State and Clemson isn't exactly equivalent to pitching against Arkansas. The Razorbacks' offense averages 7.5 runs per game with a team OPS of .887. To put that into context, Ole Miss' potent offense averages 7.1 runs per game with an .827 OPS.
So much of Arkansas' success comes via its quartet of mashers in the middle of the lineup. Casey Martin, Dominic Fletcher, Heston Kjerstad and Matt Goodheart have combined to hit 44 home runs and 67 doubles this season, as well as drive in 197 runs. And despite Ole Miss' success against Arkansas, these four Razorbacks have still batted 22-for-71 (.310) with two home runs, 11 RBI and 13 runs scored.
Few teams boast middle-order bats quite like Arkansas does. Keeping pitches low and out of the middle against these guys could be the difference between a flight to Omaha and a quiet trip back to Oxford.
Sure, Arkansas can score. But so can Ole Miss. Over three games in the Oxford Regional, Ole Miss' offense scored more runs and produced a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage than any other team in college baseball.
Hitting nine home runs and scoring 41 runs in three games probably isn't a sustainable pace. But for an Ole Miss offense that wheezed down the stretch, averaging 3.25 runs per game in the 12 games leading up to the SEC Championship versus Vanderbilt, rediscovering a power stroke and some offensive consistency is huge this late in the season.
In five games against Ole Miss this season, Arkansas' bullpen has allowed 14 earned runs in 19 innings pitched for an ERA of 6.63. Sure, eight of those runs came in one game, dropping the Razorbacks' bullpen ERA to 3.86 in the other four contests. But the point remains that Ole Miss has proven capable of putting up big run totals against Arkansas' relievers this season.
Arkansas ace Isaiah Campbell is going to be good. Over his last five starts, Campbell has a 1.41 ERA and has struck out the same number of batters (27) as he has allowed walks and hits combined and the Razorbacks have won in five of Campbell's last six starts. He'll be just as stingy as Ethridge or Nikhazy, potentially more.
But if Ole Miss can do damage against Arkansas' other starting pitchers or the relievers who come after, the Rebels might be able to make up for a handful of tough innings against Campbell.
If this series goes to three games, Ole Miss' Omaha hopes will likely fall on the shoulders of freshman right-hander Gunnar Hoglund. Hoglund (3-2, 4.64 ERA) has pitched good enough to lead Ole Miss to victory in two starts against Arkansas this season, posting a 3.86 ERA in 9.1 innings, including a career-high 6.1 innings pitched last time out against the Razorbacks.
But all season, Hoglund has been a victim of an alarming trend: He's exponentially worse the second time he faces a batter than he is the first time. This year, Hoglund has a 1.59 ERA and a batting average against of .225 his first time through the batting order, and he hasn't allowed an earned RBI to one of the first nine batters he faced in a game since March 24 at Missouri. But the second time through the lineup? Hoglund's ERA balloons to 9.28 and his batting average against rises to .625, and he's allowed at least one earned run in 10 consecutive appearances and 12 of his 15 starts overall.
With the potency of Arkansas' lineup, it'd be a little surprising to see Hoglund go distance unless he unlocks a major piece of his potential that's been missing his entire freshman season. But if Hoglund can unlock that and pitch to the second nine batters the way he does to the first nine? Ole Miss might find itself en route to Nebraska.
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or email@example.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.