Monday, June 8, 2009

A (somewhat) level-headed look at Mike Bianco, Ole Miss baseball

As game 3 of the Oxford Super Regional came to a end yesterday afternoon, the floodgates opened on the message boards, text messages, and the blogosphere. I was as frustrated as anyone, but after a few Fat Tires, some yard work, and a good night’s sleep, I can pen my thoughts with a clear head, instead of one fresh from the heat of the moment.

Nothing said here is to cheapen what Virginia did this weekend or what they’ve accomplished all season. The Cavaliers played a very solid brand of baseball and gutted out two win-or-go-home games to punch their ticket to Omaha. They’re a very solid team top to bottom. This is more an indictment of the way the Rebels played. Certain things jump out at you after the series this weekend.

What was the painful aspect of the weekend was how poorly the Rebels fared executing mundane fundamentals. We struggled all weekend bunting guys over, making the easy play (7 errors?), hitting cut off men, turning double plays, stringing hits together, etc. Our poor execution coupled with UVA’s nearly flawless Saturday and Sunday performances equated to an easy series win for the ‘Hoos.

Here’s what I’ve come up with. Feel free to dispute, agree, ignore, or patronize…

There is no excuse for not winning this Super Regional

Against Texas in 2005, we said, “Oh it’s Texas, they always win and it’s our first Super Regional ever.” Against Miami in 2006, Miami rolled into town and won. We said, “Oh, it’s Miami, they always win.” Against Arizona State in Tempe in 2007, we said, “It’s Arizona State, they always win. Plus we’re on the road.” None of that applies to Virginia this year. The Cavaliers had never been to a Super Regional before this weekend. They start 7 freshmen/sophomores. They almost dropped baseball to a club team several years ago.

The only one of those four I can truly stomach is the ASU one, but given how we lost game 1 because Bianco ran Kline back out for the 9th, even that one’s tough to take. The Miami series in 2006 was inexcusable as well. That was a mediocre Hurricanes team that had no business winning Games 2 and 3 in Oxford that season.

Firing Mike Bianco is not the answer. At least not yet.

The Ole Miss baseball team has experience unparalleled success under Bianco’s direction. The late years of Don Kessinger’s tenure paired with Pat Harrison’s very existence left a very bad situation that Bianco has turned into one of the most successful regular season programs in the country. To dismiss that as something anyone could step in and emulate is foolish.

Yes,. the four super regional losses are tough to swallow, but, quite frankly, Miami is really the only clearly inferior team that we lost to. Above all the others, that's the Super Regional that the Bianco haters should point to. As great as the 2004 team was, Texas was clearly better, as was Arizona State. With Bittle on the shelf, it's easy to make the argument that UVA was a better team than Ole Miss was before the weekend series.

The problem lies in Bianco’s salary, by some accounts the highest in the SEC. Yearly failures on the 2nd biggest stage in college baseball should not be a characteristic of the highest paid coach in the league.

That said, there need to be changes, either in philosophy of existing coaches or in the actual assistants

The common thread in the 4 SR losses is they’ve been under Mike Bianco’s watch. The 4 Supers in 5 seasons is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but the growing grumblings of Bianco taking the Rebels as far as he can are starting to gain much more traction with another failure. Bianco’s teams are now 0-6 in home games that would send us to Omaha. Whatever approach he is taking to loosen guys up is obviously not working. Even this team – with all their antics and carefree attitude – played tight yesterday, even with an early lead.

Bianco’s typical stubbornness with starting pitchers cost us yesterday as he stuck with Nathan Baker far too long. Baker wasn’t pitching poorly, but his painfully slow delivery + UVA’s speed on the basepaths + Kyle Henson’s “arm” was a recipe for disaster. UVA’s starter was pulled early because he was struggling… Bianco should’ve taken the hint and pulled Baker as well.

The small ball he tried this season doesn’t work well unless the players are skilled at sacrifice bunting. It’s tougher than looks – keeping the head of the bat up, coming back at just the right time to deaden the ball, placing it just right – but practice makes perfect. Something needs to improve in that skill-set or the small ball just won’t work.

They say once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a trend. It’s hard to not feel that way watching another Oxford Super Regional go the way of the visitors. Next year’s Rebels will be another Top 10 quality team and will have a legitimate shot at another Super Regional. Will it finally be the year Bianco and his Rebels break through? Or will be just another disappointment for Rebel fans?

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