The Rebels were coming in after losing two straight series – to Kentucky at home and at Auburn. Ole Miss had not played its best baseball at home this season where its Southeastern Conference record was only 5-7.
But this was Mississippi State. The Rebel players know this is the arch-rival. But in the first two games of this series, only pinch hitter Austin Knight and relief pitcher Jeremy Massie were participants who hail from Mississippi.
Understanding the rivalry takes time for out of staters. That’s simply the truth of the matter. Players confirm that every year.
But, after these two games on Saturday were done and wrapped in red and blue, Auston Bousfield, a sophomore from Florida, may have stated it best when he assessed things.
“We have a lot of older guys on this team,” Bousfield said after Ole Miss moved to 35-16 on the season and past MSU in the conference standings at 14-12. “Lot of juniors, seniors, even sophomores that played a good amount as freshmen. I feel like we’ve been through the ups and downs of the SEC. We know how to bounce back and respond, even when things don’t go our way.”
Things went their way most of this day. The Bulldogs were coming in after sweeping Alabama last weekend in Starkville. They are now 36-15 overall and 13-13 in SEC play.
With four SEC games left for both – tomorrow, and then at LSU for Ole Miss and at home against South Carolina for State – there is a whole lot left to play for.
Wahl, as usual, started the first game and pitched a fine first inning with three strikeouts on Friday night. Then came the pouring rain, deluging Swayze Field like few had seen. Game one, it was decided shortly after the place was declared unplayable, was to restart at 3 p.m. Saturday. Game two would follow.
So who would start? How would the pitchers for Ole Miss be handled now?
“It was one of those things where we felt like Mike (Mayers) and Sam (Smith) would be great on Saturday, just like they were today,” Wahl said. “I knew I had thrown such few pitches that I’d be ready to go (Sunday).”
And that is where things stand.
The Rebels won game one 3-0. Mayers, the reliever but who actually started the day, had a critical moment in the opener. It was the third inning, the bases were full of Bulldogs, the score was 0-0, there was one out, and Hunter Renfroe, one of the best players from Mississippi and one of the best college baseball players in the country, was at bat.
And he grounded into a double play.
“That was a real turning point for me,” Mayers said. “I’ve struggled with that. I’ve been a guy to give up a run or two in that situation. That was huge for me and huge for our team to get out of.”
Mayers went seven innings and allowed nothing – no runs, two hits, two walks, two strikeouts. Brett Huber came in to pitch the ninth with a 3-0 lead, had some fun with it as only Huber can (two strikeouts but two walks this time), and allowed no runs to claim his 11th save of the season and 27th of his remarkable UM career.
Stu Turner ready to put the tag on
Then in game two Smith, who has become more reliable this year and has lifted his game, pitched well after a very rocky first inning. He allowed two runs in the first on five hits and things could have been worse early. But the Rebels were able to get out of it, trailing just 2-0.
After that Smith threw five more innings and allowed just three more hits with two strikeouts. And the Rebels went to work on offense during that time, scoring four runs in the bottom of the first, with a three RBI triple by Auston Bousfield the big hit.
The lead was 8-3 before MSU made a run late. Entering the ninth with Tanner Bailey on the mound, State made it yet another nerve-racking situation, cutting the lead to 10-8.
But that’s how it ended, and the Rebels were able to hold off State to claim the series.
The Rebels now go for their first sweep of Mississippi State since 2010 in Starkville and the first time in Oxford since 2005.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy with them. They’re going to give you their best game,” said Bousfield, 3-for-5 in the second game with 5 RBI, including three of them on that important early triple. “They came out swinging and we did the same thing. We were able to capitalize and answer back there in the first.”
No matter what happens on Sunday, what Saturday did was send the Rebels to Baton Rouge, by way of a game Tuesday night at USM, to play LSU with something really big they can accomplish as far as this season goes.
Ole Miss hasn’t won a baseball series in Baton Rouge since 1982. The Rebels are certainly due.
As it turns out, having Wahl, your star ace, start two games in one Southeastern Conference weekend against your arch-rival is just about as good as one could draw it up.
And now Wahl, the Virginian, will be on the hill. On Mother’s Day Sunday and with a chance to sweep a team he didn’t even know was going to be his arch-rival just a few years ago.
“I should have a lot of adrenaline. It’s Mississippi State, but even more than that, I’m just ready to go tomorrow,” Wahl said. “We’re excited for tomorrow and an opportunity to sweep our rival. We’re pumped about it.”
And his teammates are ready for him to go, too.
“Any time you have Bobby on the mound you have a chance to win,” Bousfield said, who mentioned the tremendous support the team got from its large and loud crowd all day Saturday. “So we’re excited about it.”
As they should be.