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Bullpen woes plague Ole Miss

OXFORD — “What’s the key to making sure everyone shakes this off moving forward?”

“That’s a tough question right now,” replies Ole Miss catcher Cooper Johnson after one long pause and just before another. “I think … it’s just part of baseball. You have to be able to move on.”

Johnson was behind the plate for every pitch, every long inning, every bullpen meltdown for Ole Miss last weekend. Ole Miss held mid-inning leads both Saturday and Sunday, and then Mississippi State put together a big inning the minute the starting pitcher left the game.

After losing a close 2-0 game Friday to one of the best pitchers in the nation, the Rebels lost 8-5 on Saturday and 11-5 Sunday. On Saturday, it was a six-run seventh inning. Sunday, a nine-run fourth.

To put it simply, Ole Miss has bullpen issues right now.

Two weeks ago, with a chance to win a series in Baton Rouge for the first team since 1982, a ninth-inning collapse nearly crippled those hopes. Parker Caracci gave up back-to-back-to-back home runs as LSU scored six runs to tie the game at 15. Ole Miss wound up winning 19-15 in 10 innings.

Last weekend the blowups came earlier and Ole Miss was unable to recover.

“It’s been our kryptonite or downside this weekend, that big inning,” Johnson said. “There’s moments in the game where the game is won or lost. It’s a couple of pitches or a couple of at-bats that are detrimental to whether you win or lose … There are moments where you have to make pitches. And if you don’t make pitches, you will lose the game. You can win the game with one swing of the bat. We just didn’t make that pitch today or this weekend.”

Against Mississippi State it was a string of bad pitches.

Austin Miller, Ole Miss’ dominant setup reliever up until recently, was the culprit Saturday.

Brought in to start the seventh inning Saturday after freshman Doug Nikhazy allowed two runs through six innings, Miller couldn’t record an out and was torched for four earned runs. Caracci recorded the final three outs of the inning but gave up two runs himself.

Sunday’s nightmare scenario was more of a group effort. Carrying a 2-1 lead into the fourth inning, Ole Miss recorded the first two outs. Gunnar Hoglund, Zack Phillips and Max Cioffi then combined to allow the next 10 Mississippi State batters to reach base before recording the third out. Every Bulldog batter scored a run.

The struggles might be, and probably should be, a bigger deal internally, but at least outwardly the message is of unwavering confidence.

“I don’t think our morale or anything like that has wavered at all,” Miller said. “We all have each other’s back and I don’t think the guys in this dugout think anything less of that. They trust us and we trust them. Stuff happens.”

For Miller and Caracci, it’s a multi-game stretch of rough outings.

Miller’s three scoreless innings Sunday after the blowup might help turn things around, but his ERA over the last two weeks is still a whopping 9.00 in six innings. Caracci’s ERA in 3 2/3 innings over the same stretch is 19.60.

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco brushed off concerns about the bullpen following Saturday’s game. After the series finale, he acknowledged the problem Johnson addressed earlier.

“You have to do things to get off the field. Certainly, we didn’t do that. We didn’t do that yesterday and we didn’t do that today,” said Bianco. “We didn’t make enough pitches and we didn’t make enough plays.”

OLE MISS AT TENNESSEE:

• Thursday: 6 p.m. (TV: SEC Network)

• Friday: 5:30 p.m.

• Saturday: 11 a.m. (TV: SEC Network)