Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rebels Rally To Down #1 Georgia 10-8, Pull Even In Series

A day after watching Georgia come up with a big hit in a critical situation, the Rebels pulled off a little magic of their own as No. 11 Ole Miss (31-12, 12-8 SEC) rallied in the eighth to defeat No. 1 Georgia (33-10, 14-6 SEC) by a score of 10-8 on Saturday.

With 9,478 fans on their feet in the eighth inning and the game tied at eight, Logan Power came up with a two-RBI double to right field to score Evan Button and Zach Miller and push the Rebels to a 10-8 lead. The attendance was the second largest ever at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field.

The Rebels scored three runs in the inning, sparked by a Kevin Mort single to open the frame. With a runner on, Georgia went to the bullpen to for Justin Earls. A wild pitch moved Mort to second before Evan Button came up with an RBI single to tie the game at eight.

Jordan Henry then flew out for the second out of the inning before Button then moved to second on a wild pitch and took third on a passed ball. A walk of Zach Miller put two men on before Power came up with the big hit that drove in both runs and gave the Rebels the lead.

Jake Morgan then entered the game and closed out the ninth, retiring all three batters in order to pick up his sixth save of the season and clinch the win. Brett Bukvich (6-1) picked up the win in relief as he worked 0.1 innings and struck out the final out of the eighth inning before the Rebels would rally in the bottom half of the inning.

Earls (0-1) suffered the loss for the Bulldogs as he gave up two runs on two hits with a walk and a strikeout after entering the game with the Rebels trailing by one and a runner at first.

“There were lots of heroes today,” said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco. “Phillip Irwin had a tough game without his best stuff, but he gutted it out and gave us a lot of innings. Offensively we were able to get some big hits with runners in scoring position, which we weren’t able to do Friday night. We got the crowd into it. It was very loud on the field. We got some runners on , did some things offensively and got them into the game.”

Georgia scored two runs in the first inning for the second straight day as Bryce Massanari hit a two-run shot that scored Matt Cerione and gave Georgia the 2-0 lead. Cerione reached on a walk to open the game.

Ole Miss answered in the bottom of the first as Miller drew a walk then scored from first on a double to right field from Matt Smith.

The Bulldogs answered in the third as back-to-back singles put runners on and a fielding error at second pushed one run across and left runners at the corners. A sac fly from Poythress scored Cerione for the second run of the inning before back-to-back doubles from Massanari and Johnathan Taylor notched a third run and gave Georgia a 5-1 lead.

Ole Miss again answered, pushing two runs across the plate in the bottom of the third to cut the lead to 5-3. Tim Ferguson opened the inning with a home run before a Henry walk and a Miller double scored the second run of the inning and cut the lead to two.

The Rebels then claimed the lead in the fourth with a three run inning that saw Ole Miss jump out to a 6-5 lead.

Georgia again had an answer, as Massanari came up with his second home run of the day to knot the game at six in the fifth inning.

The Bulldogs moved out to an 8-6 lead in the seventh when Poythress reached on a single, only to see Massanari come up with his third home run of the day to plate two more runs for the Bulldogs.

The Rebels then pushed a run across in the seventh to cut the lead to one when Smith came up with a two-out double and scored a batter later on a single to left field from Kyle Henson. The run pulled the score to 8-7 in favor of the visiting team.

That’s when Ole Miss dug down and came up with its rally, using three hits to push three runs across the plate and take the lead for good.

Ole Miss and Georgia will face-off again at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday in the rubber-match as each team fights to claim the weekend series.

Sox Bats Prevail Over Yanks

There were more dizzying dramatics for the Red Sox against their rivals on Saturday, when the truest form of a slugfest unfolded.

Even after sustaining an early 6-0 deficit, the Red Sox found a way to outbash the Yankees, 16-11, in a wild contest at Fenway Park.

Red Sox-Yankees
Sat.: BOS 16, NYY 11
• Sox outslug Yanks
• Smoltz, Dice-K better
• Yanks restock roster
• A-Rod's next step
• Batboy enjoys series
Fri.: BOS 5, NYY 4
• Youk wins it for Sox
• Papi: No ill will
• Van Every fills void
• Lugo eyes Monday
• A-Rod improving
• Wang to DL
• Tex on the scene
• Ransom to DL
• Bruney examined

In a game billed as a pitchers' duel between Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett -- two right-handers who were phenoms on the same Marlins staff a few seasons ago -- neither power pitcher had much of anything.

This was a game dominated by the bats, as the American League East heavyweights traded haymakers all afternoon and into the early evening.

Mike Lowell's three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning was the one hit that stood up, giving the Red Sox their ninth straight win -- a franchise record for April -- and a chance to sweep the Yankees in this three-game series on Sunday night. The homer from Lowell, who finished with six RBIs, came against right-hander Jonathan Albaladejo.

Making the loss more painful for the Yankees was the fact they held a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth inning on Friday night, only to lose that game in 11 innings.

Aside from Lowell's game-winner, perhaps Boston's most clutch hit of the day came from Jason Varitek. The captain turned on Burnett's 96-mph heater and launched it into the visitors' bullpen with two outs in the fourth inning to cut New York's lead to a mere run at 6-5.

Burnett didn't settle down in the sixth, as the Red Sox went right back at him. Jacoby Ellsbury opened the inning with a game-tying homer, again into the Yankees' bullpen. Dustin Pedroia (single), David Ortiz (double) and Kevin Youkilis (hit by pitch) then combined to load the bases with nobody out. Though Burnett got a brief reprieve when J.D. Drew hit into a 3-2-3 double play, Bay lofted a two-run double off the Green Monster to give the Red Sox their first lead of the day, 8-6.

Improbably, Beckett had a chance to get the win. But the right-hander's misery continued when the Yankees jumped right back on him, getting a Derek Jeter walk and a two-run homer by Johnny Damon that tied the game.

Back and forth it went. In the bottom of the sixth, the Red Sox took the lead again on a sacrifice fly to right by Ortiz. The bad news of that go-ahead run was that Pedroia strangely tried to tag and go to second and was thrown out to end the inning.

That was just the first unfortunate event for Pedroia, who uncharacteristically let a routine grounder from Damon with two outs go through his legs in the top of the seventh for a two-run error that put the Yankees back ahead, 10-9.

Again, though, the Red Sox would have an answer.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sox Primed For Yankee Invasionthis Weekend

With the Yankees coming to town for the first time, the stars happen to be aligned just right for the Red Sox. No, not the stars that hover above, but rather the ones that fill out Boston manager Terry Francona's lineup.

The renewal of the rivalry -- which takes place Friday night at Fenway --- couldn't come at a better time for the Red Sox, who look more like the Red Socks these days.

In case you haven't noticed, the Red Sox bring a seven-game winning streak into this series, and the catalyst has been an offense that has gone from an early-season funk to a steady display of mashing.

There will be no better test for Boston's surging sticks than the Yankees' starting pitchers, which will consist of Joba Chamberlain, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte in this series.

What has gotten into an offense that combined to hit .213 over the first seven games, only to bring its overall average up to .275 just eight games later?

A big part of it is venue. When the Red Sox were at their worst at the plate, they were on a six-game West Coast swing. The revival has come at Fenway, where even when the weather is cold, the ever-inviting Green Monster hovers just 310 feet from home plate.

"We play good at home," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "Everybody is in a good mood. Everybody is locked in right now."

That includes Ortiz. Though he has yet to go deep, the big man has been wearing out the Monster of late. Typically when Ortiz starts going to the opposite field, it is a sign that he is primed for a breakout.

"I'm swinging hard -- just in case I hit it," quipped Ortiz.

There is a significant list of teammates who are also shredding the ball.

The one guy who has been mashing since, seemingly, the national anthem on Opening Day, is Kevin Youkilis. The first baseman is hitting .429 with 14 runs scored, six doubles, four homers, 12 RBIs, a .522 on base percentage and a .750 slugging percentage.

"He always puts together consistent at-bats," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "This is a streak that's ridiculous. He knows the count, knows what he's looking for, and when he gets his pitch, he doesn't miss it."


"If you're scoring a lot of runs, it means you're winning. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going and maintain this hot streak we're on right now. There's a lot of guys in this lineup that are really hot right now."
-- Tim Wakefield


Then there is Lowell. Offseason hip surgery was going to hinder his production? It doesn't appear so. The gritty third baseman is back in that 2007 mode where he can smell RBIs. Lowell has driven in 16 runs to lead the team, this to go along with three homers and a .315 average.

Not bad for a No. 7 hitter. That placement alone is indicative of the depth of Boston's lineup.

"I know, man. No [kidding]. They should move him to third," quipped Ortiz, who occupies the three-hole for the Sox. "We got him back there just to fool people."

But very few Red Sox hitters are getting fooled these days. And as much as both rivals talk about the importance of pitching, Lowell notes that it could be the most locked-in offense that prevails in this initial series.

"I think the key is going to be which offense is going to be able to take advantage of mistakes," Lowell said.

While Lowell, Youkilis and Ortiz have been getting a lot of accolades the last few days, the reigning American League's Most Valuable Player is also catching fire. Dustin Pedroia, who was hitting .179 on April 15, is up to .286.

"It's just a matter of getting more at-bats," Pedroia said. "There was a small sample of at-bats early and guys want to do so well. Once you get to the grind of the season, you start having better at-bats and the numbers to show for it."

While media and fans will dissect the fluctuations of the offense all year long, there is a simple fact that hits home to Ortiz to demonstrate the recent hot streak.

"We've got good hitters. Good hitters are always going to hit, no matter what," Ortiz said. "I don't care what anybody has to say. Good hitters are always going to hit. You could have a whole bad month and then you have a good month -- not even a good month, you have two good weeks, and that bad month is in the past because everybody knows that you're hitting. That's how the game goes -- period."

And when the Red Sox are hitting, an attitude develops in the clubhouse.

"If you're scoring a lot of runs, it means you're winning," said Red Sox right-hander Tim Wakefield. "Hopefully we can keep the momentum going and maintain this hot streak we're on right now. There's a lot of guys in this lineup that are really hot right now."

Now the Red Sox just hope the Yankees get to experience just how hot.

Button's Offense Leads Rebels Over Eagles

Evan Button had a big night for the Rebels, going 5-for-5 at the plate with two RBI and a run scored to help the offense lead No. 11 Ole Miss (30-11) to a win over Southern Miss (25-15) by a score of 8-4 on Wednesday at Pete Taylor Park.

It marks the first win in Hattiesburg for the Rebels since the 2001 season.

Button led the Rebels, who had 17 hits on the night. Six Ole Miss players posted multiple hits, including a 3-for-4 performance from Kyle Henson and a 2-for-3 performance from Kevin Mort. The bottom of the order came up with 10 hits, four RBI and five runs.

Rory McKean (5-1) picked up the win in relief for the Rebels as the junior entered in the fifth and worked 2.0 innings as he held Southern Miss to two runs - one earned - on four hits with a walk and a strikeout. David Goforth picked up his third save of the season as he worked the final 3 innings and held the Golden Eagles hitless while walking one and striking out five.

Seth Hester (2-2) suffered the loss for the Golden Eagles as he worked 2.0 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits with a walk and two strikeouts. Southern Miss would go on to use six pitchers in the game.

“The bottom of the order did great for us tonight,” said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco. “Evan Button had a great night and it was nice to see that out of him. Kevin Mort continued to be Mr. Consistency and Kyle Henson had a great night as well.

“Our pitchers did a good job tonight as well, and David Goforth was tremendous at the end. He is super talented and just so athletic.”

Ole Miss got on the board in the second when Kyle Henson came up with an RBI double down the left field line to score Zach Miller. Miller singled before stealing second to get into scoring position for the Henson hit. Mort then singled to short, allowing Henson to move to third before Evan Button came up with an RBI single to score Henson and give the Rebels a 2-0 lead.

The Rebels added to the lead in the third inning when Matt Smith singled up the middle and drove in two more runs as Logan Power and Matt Snyder scored on the play. Power walked before moving to third on a double from Snyder.

Southern Miss rallied in the fifth as the Golden Eagles finally got to Bukvich and broke up the no-hitter. James Ewing drew a walk before moving to second on a single from Josh Fields. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch before scoring on a double to right center from Corey Stevens. A single from Joey Archer put runners at second and third and sent the Rebels to the bullpen for Rory McKean.

McKean walked B.A. Vollmuth to load the bases before getting Travis Graves to ground into a double play at third as the Rebels got the lead runner at home and Graves at first. Taylor W.lker then flew out to right field to end the inning with Ole Miss up 5-2.

Ole Miss extended the lead again in the seventh when Smith scored from first on a double to the wall in centerfield from Miller. Smith singled to open the inning and get on base for Miller’s hit. Two batters later, Henson singled then scored from first on a double to left center from Kevin Mort to give the Rebels a 7-2 lead and send Southern Miss to the bullpen for Collin Cargill.

Evan Button then tripled off the wall in left to score Mort as Ole Miss took an 8-2 lead.

Southern Miss answered in the bottom of the frame as three straight singles pushed a run across and left runners at second and third with no outs on the board. The Rebels then turned to the bullpen for David Goforth. Goforth got the next three batters out with a strikeout, groundout and fly out - but a run scored on the groundout as Southern Miss cut the lead to 8-4.

The Golden Eagles would get no closer as Goforth held the home team in check down the stretch to preserve the win for the Rebels.

Ole Miss will return to action this weekend as the Rebels host No. 1 Georgia in a three-game series at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field. First pitch on Friday night is set for 6:30 p.m. as Ole Miss will kick off a celebration of the newly renovated stadium and host a fireworks show immediately following the game.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bittle Named Finalist For 2009 Lowe's Senior Class Award

Right-hander Scott Bittle was named one of 10 finalists for the 2009 Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award which honors senior who have committed four years of excellence both on and off the playing field, Lowes and the NCAA announced recently.

The Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award – which is an acronym for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School – is an award which has developed into one of the nation’s premier tributes to college seniors. The award, which began with basketball in 2001, is now in its third year with baseball.

The finalists were chosen by a media committee from a list of 30 candidates based on qualities that define a complete student-athlete. These four primary areas of criteria include: classroom, community, character and competition.

Nationwide balloting begins immediately to determine the third annual winner, who will receive the award from Lowe’s during the NCAA Men’s College World Series this June in Omaha, Nebraska. The nationwide voting concludes on May 31. Fan balloting is available on the award’s official website and will be combined with votes from coaches, media and sponsors to determine the recipient of the award.

Fans can go vote at

“It’s very flattering for Scott to be named as a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award,” said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco. “But it’s also an honor for which he is certainly very deserving. He is having another tremendous season and once again, we would not be having the season we are having without him.”

Bittle has been the epitome of the traits put forth by candidates for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award. After battling through his sophomore season, Bittle returned for his junior year and helped lead his team to the program’s sixth straight NCAA Regional as he led the nation in strikeouts per 9.0 innings pitched and led the Southeastern Conference in strikeouts with 130. He also posted a 7-1 record with eight saves as he earned First Team All-America honors.

After being drafted by the New York Yankees in the second round of the 2008 MLB Draft, Bittle opted to return to Ole Miss for his senior season. He began the season as a closer, but has since transitioned into the role of weekend starter to help anchor the weekend rotation.

Since moving into Sunday starter role, Bittle has posted a 3-0 record with a 1.29 ERA and has posted 38 strikeouts while allowing on four runs in 28.0 innings of work. He pitched a complete-game shutout of Kentucky with a career-high 13 strikeouts and was named Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Week for his efforts. He also turned in a streak of 21.1 scoreless innings pitched in the first three weekends as a starter covering games against LSU, Kentucky and South Carolina.

Papi & Red Sox on a Roll

Batting just .170 with no home runs and 4 RBIs on the season, Ortiz was a mess. But Francona saw something, and said before the game, "I actually think it will be good for him" to face 6-foot-9-inch Baltimore lefthander Mark Hendrickson. " 'Cause it will force him to really stay on the ball. You hear lefties say it all the time: If you cheat a little bit, you don't just make an out, but they can embarrass you."

There was no embarrassment. There were no timid ground outs to the right side. Sure, there was one strikeout swinging on an 86-mile-per-hour fastball, but Ortiz also bashed a Wall double and a triple, driving in two runs, as the Red Sox thumped the Orioles, 12-1, with marathoners racing by. That made the Red Sox proud owners of a four-game series sweep and pushed themselves a notch ahead of the sorry O's.

While many in a crowd of 37,865 were downing beer at an early hour - that 11 a.m. start - Ortiz was attempting to prove to himself and to his semi-faithful that he was not done. Not at 33 years old, after his swing looked particularly slow against the fastballs of Koji Uehara Sunday.

"If you as a hitter slow down with 88 miles an hour [fastballs], that means you've got to go," Ortiz said. "But it's crazy how you can come after you get beat by 88, and come and hit 94. That means that it's not that you've got to go, it means that you've got to pull yourself together to keep working. This is a long season.

"I was late. It doesn't matter how hard the pitch was thrown. If you're late, you're late."

But while Ortiz proved that he can have an Ortiz game, he has not yet proven who he is now. It could be this way all year - beacons of hope in an otherwise steady downturn. Or he could start rolling, the bat speed picking up as the weather turns warmer. He said he "hasn't felt like this in years" physically.

"I've been working with my mechanics, man," Ortiz said. "I've been late, a little late with pitches, which is something that I normally don't do, and pitchers are taking advantage of it.

"It's got a little bit out of hand. But at this point you don't want to get frustrated. It just makes it worse. You want to make sure you get to the point where you like to be and where you need to be. It's the beginning of the season and you don't want to give up.

"I would like to swing like [Dustin] Pedroia - you don't have to worry about mechanics."

Pedroia, too, continued to break out of whatever funk he was in. And Jacoby Ellsbury. And Jason Varitek. All together, the Sox threw out 15 hits against a sad-sack Orioles pitching staff that must be glad to head back to Camden Yards. Fenway was not hospitable, the Orioles' fifth consecutive loss matching the fifth consecutive win for the Sox.

It was good, all the runs and the hits and a holiday crowd looking for amusement. But even as Justin Masterson was putting Daisuke Matsuzaka's shoulder injury out of the minds of the revelers, there were more injury concerns to contemplate. Rocco Baldelli left the game after the third inning with a mild left hamstring strain. Word came after the game that Jed Lowrie could be in for surgery in the next day or two, likely costing him half of a season.

Masterson's only blemish on his 5 1/3 innings and 84 pitches came in the third inning. Ryan Freel led off with a single, then went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Felix Pie. After the pitcher knocked Freel out of the game with a pickoff attempt that hit him in the head, pinch runner Robert Andino scored on a two-out infield single by Cesar Izturis.

Six days after he saved the bullpen with four innings, Masterson showed off his fastball, getting up to 96 miles per hour, a velocity he had reached as a reliever but not as a starter.

"It's probably not fair to expect that," Francona said of Masterson's flexibility. "He was sharp from the very beginning. He maintained the velocity on his fastball, the life on his fastball, the depth on his breaking ball. Eleven o'clock in the morning start, there are a lot of things that he just went out and did. We're fortunate, we know that."

Fortunate, also, that the offense appears to be leaving those Mendoza Line batting averages behind.

The Sox got all they needed in the first inning, with a double by Ellsbury and a single by Pedroia, followed by that opposite-field double by Ortiz. Another run came in the second, when Varitek hit his third home run of the season, his first righthanded, as his batting average sits at an acceptable .250. (He declined, once again, to discuss his offense, as he has since spring training.)

Then came three runs in the sixth inning, highlighted by Ortiz's two-run triple. And 12 batters came to the plate in the seventh, when the Sox scored six more runs to truly put the game away.

That's the offense they have had in the past, jumping on bad pitching. Whether they - and Ortiz - can do the same against a higher caliber of pitching remains to be seen. The bat belonging to the designated hitter might be speeding up. Or it might be continuing a precipitous decline.

"He swung the bat good today," Pedroia said. "He's got to build on that and keep moving forward. It's a long year. He's got 600 more at-bats left. The season's not 50 at-bats."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tigers Lose Weekend Series to Vols

Exactly a year ago -- April 20, 2008 -- Paul Mainieri and the LSU Tigers left Alex Box Stadium after losing a home SEC series they felt they should have won.

Then they went out and won the final 16 games of the regular season to launch a magic carpet ride that didn't stop until the College World Series.

Flash forward 364 days to a new season, a new Alex Box Stadium, a different home SEC series and similarly frustrating results. Mainieri looked to the past for inspiration before leaving the ballpark Sunday night and heading out toward the future: a future with 16 regular-season games remaining.

"This is when we started our winning streak last year," Mainieri said. "This is when we caught fire last year, so maybe that will happen now starting Tuesday."

The situations are not perfect parallels. A year ago LSU lost the first two games of the Georgia series, then tied with the Bulldogs in the final game. That left the Tigers at 6-11-1 in the SEC, fifth place in the Western Division and 11th place overall.

This LSU team entered the weekend ranked No. 1 nationally and, for a time, was in sole possession of first place in the SEC West. The Tigers are tied with Ole Miss for second now (at 11-7), and they'll lose their No. 1 ranking when the polls update today, but they're still in much better position than a year ago.

"The first goal is to make the SEC tournament, and we're in a good position if we can have some success here," Mainieri said Sunday evening. "We want to win the SEC West, and we're right there in the midst of that. Georgia's two games ahead of us for the SEC championship, and they've got tough games ahead too.

"I think we're in good shape probably to earn a (regional) bid, and we're within striking distance of being a national seed."

None of those things seemed likely on April 20, 2008. Then, LSU started winning. The Tigers won the stay out of last place. Then they won to win the SEC West. Then they won for a shot at winning the regular-season championship, and failing that, they still became the No. 2 seed for the SEC tournament. They won to strengthen their case for a home regional one last time at the old Alex Box Stadium, and they won to make sure they could be ranked high enough to be at home for a super regional if they advanced. They won to go to Omaha.

They won 23 consecutive games, rewriting record books and wearing out the managers who kept washing the sunflower-gold jerseys the Tigers began wearing every day as good luck charms.

This team is hardly sitting in a precarious position. Unlike the 2008 team, this group is not hoping to rally to avoid an embarrassing lower-division finish. This club is a top-10 team that just lost an SEC series for the first time together.

"Everything's right out there in front of us," Mainieri said. "We just have to play well."

Another major difference between the 2008 and 2009 teams is all about expectations. Many had to recalibrate theirs for LSU baseball following a 2006 season without NCAA postseason play and a 2007 season without an appearance in either the SEC or NCAA tournaments.

When the Tigers languished in 11th place in the conference a year ago, it seemed it would take some time for Mainieri and his staff and recruits to bring LSU back to what it considers its rightful place in the college baseball landscape. As the winning streak grew, it exceeded expectations, and it was fun.

Going 1-for-3 in Omaha left some of the Tigers hungry for more. One of them was pitcher Louis Coleman, who chose to return for his senior season largely because he wanted one more change to help LSU win a national championship.

That amazing 23-game winning streak reignited high expectations in Baton Rouge. Preseason No. 1 rankings stoked passions. Suddenly, LSU baseball had something to try to live up to again, and the Tigers entered 2009 with a much different point of view than the one that welcomed the 2008 team to Opening Night.

When all of a sudden you're expected to do it, it has a way of releasing all kinds of sports-confidence equivalents of free radicals, the kinds of adrenaline-inspired demons and doubts and pressures and what-not. It happens when a Freshman All-America player gets to his sophomore season and finds he cannot carry a team as everyone expects. It happens when an unsung hero has songs written about him.

Consider LSU relief pitcher Nolan Cain. His was a career outing Sunday in the 9-4 loss to Tennessee. He came within one out of pitching the last five innings, and he shut out the Vols on two hits and two walks. He struck out seven, and he kept Tennessee hitters off balance while his teammates tried to rally the offense. The early 9-0 deficit was too great.

It also took all of the pressure off Cain. If he blew it and gave up a bunch of runs, who was going to remember? He inherited a nine-run deficit. No worries. Just go out there and pitch. Pitch he did.

Now, if Cain throws his next pitch with an SEC game on the line, will he look as sharp, as in command? If so, then he's probably turned a corner. If not, you could perhaps attribute part of his success Sunday to the lack of any real expectations.

That's not to say he didn't perform admirably. He did.

"He was very inspiring, and as happy as I was for our team because he kept us in the game, I was more happy for him," Mainieri said. "It was a good moment for him. I know right now he'd be very humble about it because we lost, and he would tell you that it doesn't matter, but to me it did matter. I was just happy for the kid to have a moment like that."

Mainieri continued.

"He's such a wonderful kid. He bleeds purple and gold. He loves this team. It was frustrating to him when he was hurt at the beginning of the year after we had thought we were really going to count on him at the beginning of the year.

"He was really competing for a starter's role, and he'd never really had that here. He had a really freaky arm, and nobody could figure out what the problem was. Then it got better, and he showed some glimpses of throwing well, and he's been a little inconsistent, but today he was outstanding."

His teammates, mostly, were not. Jared Mitchell, retired by an amazing P.J. Polk catch of a foul ball in the first inning, came to bat three more times and struck out each time. Mitchell struck out seven times in the three-game series, three times on called third strikes. The team's leadoff hitter leads the team in strikeouts with 40.

Speaking of leadoff hitters, Tennessee -- the worst team in the SEC -- retired six of nine LSU leadoff men Saturday and six of nine Sunday. The first man up each inning doesn't need to get on base for a team to win, but it doesn't hurt. The Vols put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings Sunday, and three of those scored as Tennessee built a 9-0 lead during that span.

In the Vols' 7-5 victory Saturday, Tennessee's leadoff men were 1-for-9 (with one reaching on an error), but LSU's season-high five errors more than offset that.

So, after a weekend that began with an impressive 18-3 victory against the Vols, LSU finds itself looking to take steps forward in a lot of areas.

"I'd like to see us solidify things defensively in the infield, and I'd like to see us swing the bats better and continue to see some good pitching," Mainieri said. "We just need to keep getting better in every phase. There's a lot of room for improvement."

Mitchell struck out in five consecutive at-bats at Alabama the weekend before the Tennessee series. He looks lost at the plate, especially against left-handed pitchers. Leadoff hitters should get on base, but more than that they should make contact. Even more than that, they should not let as many good pitches go by as Mitchell has done lately.

It's time Mainieri put someone else at the top of the batting order, but whom? It's not an easy choice, and not because there are so many worthy candidates. This team has yet to reveal any true leadoff men. Ryan Schimpf has had modest success in the role and was first in the batting order in 40 games last year. The early-season Leon Landry would be a strong candidate, but his slump is too recent for Mainieri to consider him the answer for the homestretch.

If Mainieri knew the answer Sunday night, he kept it to himself.

"I haven't put that kind of thought to it yet," he said. "Obviously something needs to be done. I don't know yet what I'm going to do. I'm going to sleep on it for the next day or two and come up with a plan."

He planned to discuss it today with his staff.

"He's hit well hitting leadoff too," Mainieri said. "There's been a couple of times I haven't hit him leadoff and I wished I had."

Mainieri said he's considering changing things up to take the pressure off Mitchell, but he said he's not going to give up on Mitchell.

"It seems like he's been 0-2 every at-bat, and when you're struggling that's what happens," Mainieri said. "It seems like you get in the hole 0-2 every time, and pitchers are making great pitches, and when you think they're balls, the umpires are calling them strikes.

"He'll come out of it. I don't have any doubt about that."

Don't be surprised to see a shakeup of the lineup as a whole, just to see what shakes loose. Mainieri hinted there would be more changes this week, but he wasn't specific.

This team is talented. Louis Coleman is Jared Bradford, the 2007 version, and Blake Dean is, once again, Blake Dean. Freshmen Mikie Mahtook and Tyler Hanover asserted themselves and inserted themselves into the lineup. There is no Matt Clark, but there are more potential Ryan Schimpfs, the 2008 on-a-tear edition. There is more overall pop if no home run champion.

Pitching has some issues. You saw that during the weekend, and you saw it before the weekend.

"Today we didn't win because we pitched very poorly through the first four innings of the game," Mainieri said Sunday. "To have a team that wins consistently, you have to pitch great every day. Of course, when you pitch great, there's no guarantee you're going to win. If you don't pitch great, there's a pretty good chance you're not going to win.

"So to have a very consistent team you have to have a deep pitching staff that has three or four solid starting pitchers and quality middle relief and a quality closer. Our pitching is OK in some areas, but in other areas we need improvement."

There is, every weekend in college baseball, the tendency to overreact. Win a series? Great. Lose a series? Horrible. The difference? Often, a razor-thin margin, such as a bloop single or a throwing error after an outstanding fielding play.

LSU is seemingly on an endless parade of weekend chances in which the Tigers go into Sunday with the chance to win or lose a series. Here they are, on April 20, 2009, in the mix for SEC divisional and regular-season championships.

It's a lot better place than LSU occupied on April 20, 2008. You and I both know what's different this time.

We all expected the Tigers to be at this place or better. They inherited that expectation from the 2008 version of themselves.

Diamond Rebels Down No. 20 Florida 5-3 To Claim Series

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In a wild day at McKethan Stadium on Sunday, the Rebels came up with the key plays when they needed them as No. 16 Ole Miss (28-11, 11-7 SEC) defeated No. 20 Florida (26-14, 10-8 SEC) by a score of 5-3 in a game shortened by travel curfew.

The Rebels picked up the win in eight innings behind the pitching of Scott Bittle and Jake Morgan and some key at bats.

Bittle (4-2) picked up the win as he worked 6.0 innings and allowed three runs on six hits with six walks and eight strikeouts, while Morgan picked up his fifth save of the season. Morgan worked the final 2.0 innings and held the Gators to two hits with one walk and three strikeouts.

Florida starter James Panteliodis (3-5) suffered the loss as he allowed three runs on four hits with four walks and two strikeouts. The Gators used four pitchers in the game.

Kyle Henson was big for the Rebels at the plate, going 2-for-3 with a run scored and three RBI as he came up with a two-run home run in the third inning to tie the game. Jordan Henry went 1-for-1 at the plate, but drew four walks on the afternoon and scored two runs. Henry also stole three bases on the afternoon as the Rebels stole six bases.

“We just ground it out today,” said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco. “Bittle struggled a bit early but he was close on his pitches. Then he settled in and really took control of the game. We got some key hits from there. Kyle (Henson) was tremendous and came up with the key home run and the hit to extend the lead. And then you look at Jordan Henry with all his walks and stolen bases today."

Florida struck first, scoring in the bottom of the first inning on a single through the left side from Adams that drove in Daniel Pigott from second. Pigott walked and then moved to second on a walk of Avery Barnes. A walk then loaded the bases before another walk pushed a second run across the plate for the Gators as Florida took a 2-0 lead on the Rebels. Bittle then got Hampton Tignor to fly out to end the inning with the home team leading by two runs.

Ole Miss tied things in the third when Kyle Henson hit a two-run home run to left center to tie the game. Jordan Henry walked in the previous at bat to get on base for the Henson hit that evened he score at two.

The Rebels took the lead in the fifth when Henry scored on a wild pitch from reliever Greg Larson. Henry walked to reach base - his third walk of the game - before stealing second. He then moved to third on a sacrifice bunt from Henson before scoring on the wild pitch. Logan Power, who was intentionally walked, moved to second on the wild pitch and then scored a batter later on a single from Zach Miller that escaped the grasp of a sprinting Josh Adams at second as Ole Miss took a 4-2 lead.

Florida rallied in the bottom half of the inning with two outs on the board. With men at first and second, Adams came up with his third hit of the day to push a run across and leave men at the corners with two outs and the Rebels holding to a 4-3 lead. Bittle struck out Brandon McArthur in the next at bat, however, to end the rally and keep Ole Miss in the lead.

The Rebels got the run back in the sixth when Tim Ferguson scored on an single to left from Henson. Ferguson singled and then stole second before Henry drew his fourth walk of the afternoon to bring Henson to the plate. Henson then came up with the RBI single to give the Rebels the 5-3 lead which would prove to be the final margin of victory.

Morgan then held the Gators off the board in the seventh and eighth as the Rebels claimed the win.

Ole Miss will return to action on Tuesday when the Rebels host UALR at 6:30 p.m. at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field.

Lester Shots Down Orioles for 7 Innings as Sox win again 2-1

The video surprised the Baltimore Orioles earlier this week while they prepared for yesterday's opponent. They watched Jon Lester's start April 13 in Oakland, Calif., and saw a different pitcher than they expected. His top velocity, they said, barely reached 90 miles per hour. "I said, 'Man, he lost something on his fastball or something,' " first baseman Aubrey Huff said.

Yesterday afternoon, Lester strode to Fenway Park's sun-splashed mound and fired a 96-m.p.h. fastball past Brian Roberts with the game's first pitch. He announced that he had lost nothing.

Lester shut out the Orioles over seven innings in a 2-1 victory yesterday before 37,869, vaulting the Red Sox to .500 and into a third-place tie with Baltimore. Cameo closer Takashi Saito added unwanted intrigue by allowing one run and moving the tying run into scoring position in the ninth, but he squirmed loose and the Red Sox won their fourth straight. Saito's strikeout of pinch hitter Gregg Zaun preserved Lester's jewel, which proved the 25-year-old ace's rocky start an aberration.

"He was back to his old self," Huff said. "It kind of caught you by surprise a little. I think he might have been a little [ticked] off at the 0-2 start. I've seen him some times, I don't know how many at-bats I have off him, but today is as good as I've seen him throw against us."

Lester insisted he had been pitching well, even while the results of his first two starts and what the Orioles saw on video suggested otherwise. He recorded an out past the sixth inning in neither start, both losses, and his ERA skyrocketed to 9.00. The A's roped 10 hits and scored six runs in six innings against him.

Between that start and yesterday, Lester changed nothing. "We really didn't think anything was wrong to fix," Lester said. "There was nothing to worry about, to fret on." He knew himself well.

Lester dominated the Orioles so thoroughly they never sniffed a run. Lester struck out nine, one shy of his career best. He surrendered four hits, all singles. Aside from those four singles, two balls left the infield. Two runners reached second base, and none reached third.

"It just reiterates in the back of your mind that, 'OK, nothing is wrong, I'm still OK,' " Lester said. "It was nice today to go out and throw the ball well again and get the results I wanted to."

His success, Lester said, stemmed from making in-game adjustments. Lester struggled to command his curveball early but he worried about the feel for the pitch, not the early returns. He gained confidence with his curve, and it became a weapon.

Lester struck out Ryan Freel swinging over a 79-mile per hour curveball to lead off the third inning. Stuck in one of the only jams he confronted, two men on with one out in the fifth, Lester faced Nick Markakis, the majors' RBI leader. Lester threw a curve with two strikes. Markakis watched it hook into the strike zone for strike three.

This spring, Lester honed his changeup, a pitch he rarely used last season. He threw the pitch without hesitation yesterday. The changeup forces batters to respect his fastball, and because it darts to the left side of the plate, it perfectly complements his cutter, which bites to the right.

"The big thing is when it's called or when I want to go to it, I have the confidence to throw it," Lester said. "Whereas last year, it was, 'Where is this pitch going to go?' I had no idea what it was going to do, if it was going to cut, if I was going to bounce it, if I was going to throw it off the backstop. I didn't know. This year I have an idea of the area it's going to be in. That helps me free up and throw it a little easier."

Limping into the series with a 3-6 record, one starting pitcher suspended, and another on the disabled list, the Sox received the perfect salve in their opponent. The Sox, after thumping them three straight, are 26-6 against the Orioles at Fenway Park in their past 32 games, the best record against any team at home since September 2005.

After scoring 24 runs in three games, the Boston offense stagnated on a day designed for pitching, chilly with a significant wind blowing in from center. Japanese rookie Koji Uehara deftly mixed offspeed pitches and a "sneaky" fastball, Jason Bay said, but the Sox produced two well-timed hits. Kevin Youkilis doubled and scored on Mike Lowell's bloop single in the second inning, and Dustin Pedroia drove in Nick Green, who had doubled, with a two-out single in the fifth.

Lester needed no more. From his first pitch to his 108th, which Chad Moeller weakly skied to shallow center, Lester brushed off the two losses he never worried about. In his mind, he was back. He had never left.

"It felt like a normal day," Lester said. "Nothing out of the ordinary."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

April Is A Sporting Time Of Year

So where are we at this time of the sports year, when every event seems larger that life, The Masters, the Kentucky Derby, The Final Four, Opening day for baseball season, The NBA Playoffs, The NFL draft and perhaps most important of all, SPRING FOOTBALL.
Of all of our teams, the ones which charm us most are the Tiger and Rebel football teams. Maybe that’s because they have yet to play anyone, and in April, more than any other time of the year, hope springs eternal. Coming off of impressive bowl victories and highly rated recruiting classes both teams seem poised to achieve the pinnacle of success. But they still will have to play the games in the fall.
Last night under the lights in Tiger Stadium, 20,000 rabid fans gathered to watch LSU’s spring game, a suped-up scrimmage with restrictions on hitting in an effort to avoid unnecessary injuries. The defense held sway as is the case in most of these events. And of course, that’s what every one wanted to see, for it was the defense that was a big disappointment last year. As was QB. However last night all 3 QB’s played well, even beleaguered red shirt sophomore Jarrett Lee. Running backs Scott & Murphy also played well. So Tiger fan’s can put this moment under their pillows to dream on until early August.
In Oxford, Jevon Sneed led the first team offense to a victory over the reds. Snead directed six consecutive touchdown drives and threw for 254 yards as the Blue team defeated the Red 55-28 in the "Grove Bowl". Snead finished 11-of-15 with touchdown strikes of 12, 20 and 70 yards to Shay Hodge, Dexter McClusker and Markeith Summers, respectively. Rebel hopes for an SEC championship are riding high. Of course this was against the second team defense, but who cares, it looked like football.
Our Hornets, that’s another story. On the diamond, although not achieving the exalted ranking of LSU, Ole Miss appears to have rearranged their pitching staff to the point that they have an effective rotation and are ready to make another run for the SEC championship in Hoover, Alabama, A regional in Oxford, and the elusive College World Series. LSU on the other hand has kept on track as their #1 ranking will attest. That actually means nothing except that the LSU baseball is very good. They beat Tennessee squad by an 18-4 score Friday night but lost yesterday because they could not overcome errors and unearned runs. They play again today to keep LSU’s run of successive conference series victories alive.
The Hornets, now that’s another story A team that was one game away from playing for the conference finals last year. But now they are a shell of last year’s team. Injuries have hurt. But the departure of Jeremy Pargo for Russia was a devastating blow that can only be appreciated now that there is no backup for Chris Paul. The bench is woeful. It seems that Chris Paul and David West will not be able to carry this team past the first round of the playoffs. First game tonight.
The Red Sox may be coming around. The early schedule was stacked up against them with an opening series against AL Champion Tampa Bay, then a trip to the west coast where the Sox seldom do well, and they didn’t. But the last game against Oaklnd they got a quality start and complete game victory by rubber armed knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield. The bats have come alive in the past 3 games and today Jon Lester won a 2-1 decision. The Bull pen has been stellar, and Kevin Youkalis has warmed to the cleanup spot as though he were born for it.
So our teams are doing well, some better than others. But right now there is a lot to cheer about.