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March 20, 2013

Parham: Maturity may make Rebels special

After Saturday's loss to Arkansas, Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco kept his players a few more minutes than normal in the postgame huddle in right field at Baum Stadium.

The Rebels had just dropped a 10-1 decision to the Razorbacks to even the series and made a mess of most of the nine innings, struggling to compete after an early deficit. Bianco said he told the team it wasn't that it lost, baseball teams lose games, but how they lost.

Ole Miss is ranked No. 6 in the country and has won all but two games this season, so adversity hasn't been a key part of 2013, but a decent bit of it was dumped on the visitor's dugout late Saturday afternoon.

Junior standout Mike Mayers had his worst outing of the season, allowing seven runs in 5.1 innings. Projected first round pick Ryne Stanek was Arkansas' scheduled starter for Sunday after a rotation flip during the week. Rain was expected to pelt Northwest Arkansas in a matter of hours, so the series finale was in jeopardy to be played at all.

As the players trudged toward the Callahan charter, not many words were spoken. Many were alone with thoughts, and you couldn't blame those that thought a Mother Nature washout might not be the worst thing for the Rebels on Sunday -- finish the weekend 1-1, avoid Stanek and rely on the percentage points difference in the conference standings.

The rain never materialized past a constant sprinkle and occasional drizzle that affected playing conditions but didn't pause play. And for the second time this season, Ole Miss made adversity a one-day conversation topic. After a loss to Memphis earlier this season, the Rebels won 12 in a row. And after Saturday's struggle, Ole Miss showed just how mentally resilient it is on Sunday in Fayetteville.

Tanner Bailey and Brett Huber combined to shut out Arkansas the final six innings, during five of those a single run would have ended the game. The Hogs made five errors on the slick turf, but Ole Miss put a zero in that column, and after several missed opportunities offensively, the Rebels quality at-batted Arkansas for two runs in the 13th inning to win the game, 6-4, and the series, 2-1.

There are nine regular season weekends to go, and Ole Miss will lose a few series. It's baseball after all, but through 22 games these Rebels are different than the past couple years. And it's not just the hitting or the pitching or the defense. Ole Miss appears to be mentally elite.

Peak performance coach Brian Cain was in Fayetteville with the Rebels over the weekend, and he had to like what he saw in the series finale, though I think he had left town by the end of the game. Bianco says you have to win all kinds, and Ole Miss has shown an ability to win with persistence. That's about the best compliment I know to give.

Not many teams will win a series at Baum Stadium. Arkansas is talented, and it's a tough place to play. The atmosphere can affect you. It's intimidating for a baseball venue.

Friday night Bobby Wahl allowed three hits in seven innings, and Preston Overbey hit a two-out grand slam that broke it open. Sunday it was Bailey and Huber and Sam Smith, who started and limited the Hogs into the sixth inning. It was also a deep bench, as Christian Helsel singled and played a position -- first base -- Bianco didn't even know he could play until he asked and even then had to make sure Helsel was talking about since he was 10 years old.

Jake Overbey made two exceptional defensive plays at second base during the late innings, and Sikes Orvis and Will Allen had nice weeks and are starting to find some rhythm offensively.

And maybe most impressive stat is how Ole Miss found a way without two of its offensive weapons. Austin Anderson and Tanner Mathis were a combined 2-for-28 on the weekend. Anderson was 0-for-15. That won't happen often, as Mathis is a proven player and will soon bounce out of his skid that has him hitting just .267. Anderson hit some balls hard and will generate runs in the two-hole or three-hole in the Rebels' order.

But a microcosm of that mental toughness is those two in the final inning on Sunday. Despite the struggles, Mathis worked a leadoff walk and made excellent baserunning plays to get to second base on a fielder's choice and score when Anderson's perfect bunt was thrown down the right-field line. Two quality at-bats won the game. Like Bianco said, it takes all kinds.

That's Ole Miss' trademark at the moment. The Rebels have dropped two games and have been mentally tested when doing so, committing six errors against Memphis and losing by nine to Arkansas, but the defeats obviously don't linger. Instead of hoping for rain and being thankful for one win, the Rebels ran Stanek early and pulled through in awful conditions.

Some teams never find the ability to do that. Ole Miss has displayed it before the crunch of the season gets here. It takes talent to win in the SEC and in the postseason, and the Rebels have that, as do at least half of the league, but it also takes certain intangibles, and though there are more than two months remaining before there's a definitive answer, Ole Miss is off to one impressive start.

When it comes to wins, it takes all kinds, but when it comes to limiting losses and succeeding over a 56-game season, it takes selective amnesia and toughness. So far, the Rebels have shown that in spades.

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