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Three up, three down: at Arkansas

With two wins this weekend, Ole Miss is likely in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, but the Diamond Rebels will likely have to scoreboard watch the other games this weekend. Less than two wins this weekend and it will make for an uncomfortable Selection Monday May 30 at 11:30 a.m. on ESPN. Thursday’s series opener in Fayetteville is set for 6:35 p.m., while Friday’s game starts at 6:00 p.m. and Sunday’s at 2:05 p.m.

How long and how often can senior right-hander Jake Morgan go this weekend?

Morgan didn’t pitch last weekend against Mississippi State (but would have been available in a save situation), but on Thursday night, freshman right-hander Bobby Wahl and the Ole Miss defense could not get the ball to Morgan for the ninth, and neither Friday nor Saturday night gave Morgan the opportunity to make a relief appearance. He will be pitching on two weeks rest, but the question remains: Will Bianco go to Morgan in multiple games? And if he goes to Morgan, can he can pitch two to three innings like he did in a 7-6 series-clinching win over No. 1 South Carolina, only to go out a day or two later and do it again? Wahl, sophomore right-hander Brett Huber and senior right-hander Eric Callender are more than capable out of the bullpen, but Morgan takes pressure off of them with his stuff and experience.

 

Can Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco’s defensive adjustments not only not lose games, but win games this weekend?

After committing four errors in a 7-6 loss (including two in a three-run eighth) to Mississippi State last Thursday night, Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco looked for a spark defensively and shook up the infield alignment in each of the past two games. He moved freshman Austin Anderson from third base to shortstop, junior Blake Newalu and sophomore Alex Yarbrough from second base to third base. Another player to watch defensively is freshman Preston Overbey. The everyday third baseman before the insertion of Anderson into the lineup, Overbey has bounced between first base and third base before the injury to senior first baseman/outfielder Matt Smith. In Smith’s absence, Overbey started four of the six games in left field and turned in a great outfield assist in the fifth inning of a 12-3 win over Mississippi State last Saturday night. Entering this weekend’s series, Ole Miss ranks tenth in the SEC in fielding percentage (.968) and second-to-last in errors committed (64).

 

Does the return of senior of first baseman/outfielder Matt Smith mean a return to the SEC and NCAA Tournaments?

Just 12 days after surgery on his left hand, which he injured in an 11-9 win at Arkansas State, Smith returned to the lineup and led Ole Miss to a 10-6 win Tuesday night over Southeast Missouri State. He tied Logan Power for the most runs batted in all-time as part of a 4-for-4 game with three runs batted in and a run scored. A four-year starter and three-year captain, Smith provides leadership, experience and flair for the dramatic in a must-win series such as this weekend’s against Arkansas. While Yarbrough leads the team in batting average (.351), runs scored (48) and runs batted in (38) and sophomore outfielder Tanner Mathis had a 23-game hit streak earlier this season, Smith leads the team in home runs (8), on-base percentage (.445) and ranks among the Ole Miss all-time leaders in most offensive categories.

 

KEY TEAM STAT: Ole Miss is 23-5 when scoring first compared to a 6-18 record when the opponent scores first. In conference play, Ole Miss is 11-5 when scoring first compared to a 1-10 record when the opponent scores first. Against No. 1 South Carolina and in-state rival Mississippi State in each of the past two weekends, Ole Miss won each of three games when the team scored first and lost each of three games in which the opponent scored first.

 

KEY INDIVIDUAL STAT: Junior left-hander and probable Thursday night starter Matt Crouse won each of his first six starts with a 1.27 earned run average and .187 opponent’s batting average. In the seven starts since, he has four losses and three no-decisions and now carries a 3.56 earned run average and .265 opponent’s batting average into this weekend’s series.