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Rebels show resilience on diamond

By By Will Bardwell / sports writer
May 20, 2004
It remains to be seen whether Ole Miss will win the Southeastern Conference baseball championship or the SEC West division title this weekend. What has been determined, though, is that the Rebels haven't choked.
And if you've been following Ole Miss baseball for more than a couple of years, that's a pretty big deal.
Two years ago, the Rebels fielded a great team that was ranked as high as No. 6 in national polls. Ole Miss began the season 32-9 overall and 12-6 in the SEC. After taking two of three from No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, no less the Rebels were just one game behind the Crimson Tide in the division standings.
Ole Miss had done well so well, in fact, that the team decided to take off the last month of the season. The Rebels lost all four of their remaining SEC series, including sweeps against Arkansas and Mississippi State in the final two weeks.
As the math ended up shaking out, Ole Miss needed just one win in their final six games to qualify for the SEC tournament. It never came.
Not only did the Rebels fall short of the SEC West championship and an NCAA regional, but they missed out on the postseason altogether.
But this year's Rebels, currently ranked No. 9 by Baseball America, have shown a quality that the 2002 squad never did resilience. In April, Ole Miss lost three of four in-conference series, and its SEC record went from 7-2 to 12-9. History seemed to be repeating itself.
That was as far as the skid went, though. The Rebels took two out of three from league-leading Arkansas two weeks ago, then went to Gainesville last weekend and joined Georgia as the only teams to sweep Florida.
Disaster averted.
Good pitching helps, too. The Rebels' 3.28 ERA is a far cry from the 4.52 ERA produced in 2002. Friday starter Mark Holliman is second in the SEC West with 86 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting just .253 second-lowest in the division and Ole Miss has allowed fewer doubles and home runs than anyone in the conference.
Pitching stepped up biggest for the Rebels when they needed it most. Since losing two of three in a series against South Carolina three weeks ago, Ole Miss has allowed more than three runs in only one of its six games.
And even when Florida ripped the Rebels for nine runs on Sunday, Ole Miss still managed to win, thanks to 16 hits a season high in SEC games.
More important than the quantity of the Rebels' hits has been the timing of those hits. Bianco says timely hitting is the biggest difference between this year and the 2002 season, and it shows. Since scoring just one run off 10 hits against Arkansas on May 8, Ole Miss has thrived off a number of clutch hits. After a three-run outburst by the Razorbacks tied the game on May 9, Charlie Babineaux's sixth-inning homer regained the lead for the Rebels. Ole Miss went on to win the game and the series.
Most recently, the Rebels edged Florida 10-9 on Sunday thanks to more timely hits. Freshman Alex Presley, who hit a walk-off homer against Tennessee on April 16, spurred a three-run inning with a leadoff triple in the 10th, and Ole Miss held on for its fifth win in six games.
The never-say-die way of life is a far cry from two years ago, when the Rebels seemed to spend the last month of the season waiting for a break to come their way. Now, that late-season meltdown is little more than a memory.
The Rebels control their own destiny in the SEC West and are assured of the division title if they sweep this weekend, but that's a lot easier said than done. No. 4 LSU, one of the nation's top baseball programs over the last two decades, is still in contention for the league championship and will not go quietly.
But unlike two years ago, Ole Miss is not heading into the season's final weekend waiting for a break. Nowadays, the Rebels are making their own breaks.