Ole Miss is proof that how things look on paper before the season isn’t always how they transpire when the season arrives.
The Rebels are in the middle of an impressive campaign with a 27-8 overall record and 7-5 mark in the Southeastern Conference. With an RPI of 9, a strength of schedule of 35 and a good overall resume, the Rebels will be in the mix for an NCAA Regional host spot throughout the second half of the season.
Given where the Rebels were predicted to finish before the season — the middle of the SEC Western Division — Mike Bianco’s club is already exceeding expectations. But as with any team in the SEC, the Rebels feel like they have much unfinished business entering this weekend's road series against rival Mississippi State.
“I think we've really just played well in all three phases this season, minus a few defensive issues here recently,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “I think the big thing about this team is people didn't really know the personnel all that much because there were several new guys at different positions. If you return stars like Bobby Wahl, Mike Mayers and Stuart Turner, people identify with that. There was just a lot less information available.”
At first glance in January, it was easy to be bearish about the Rebels. Gone were outstanding righthanded pitchers Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers, both guys who established themselves as elite SEC weekend starters, an achievement not easy to accomplish. Then, there were the losses of leading hitters Stuart Turner and Andrew Mistone. Turner was by far the bigger loss of the two, as he established himself as an elite hitter and more than adequate catcher.
Despite those gaping holes entering the spring, the Rebels are prospering, beginning with a surprising weekend rotation with arms such as righthanded pitchers Chris Ellis and Sam Smith, and talented lefthanded hurler Christian Trent.
The rise of Ellis is only somewhat surprising. The talented righty always has had the potential to be an elite starting pitcher, but an abdominal strain and just the Rebels' inability to find a role for him, hindered his progress last season. Ellis finished the 2013 campaign with a 5.57 ERA, but saw his stock increase after shining at the Cape Cod League last summer. Older and more experienced, the righty is shining this season with a 1.88 ERA in 48 innings, along with 33 strikeouts and 16 walks. Ellis hasn't shown quite the velocity he did at the Cape last summer with a fastball up to 93-94, but his stuff has been consistent and crisp.
“Ellis has had quite a run with us. I really wanted him to be the No. 3 starting pitcher last season, even pushing guys like Wahl and Mayers. But he goes out there and beats TCU, then gets that abdominal strain. That kind of changed things,” Bianco said. “Even though he was out six weeks, I really blame myself for not finding a role for Chris when he came back. We could've started him during the midweek, but I didn't want to waste him that way. With that said, I didn’t use him right.”
Smith’s consistency this spring isn’t a big surprise. The imposing righthander started 15 games last season and had a 3.41 ERA in 68 2/3 innings, while this season, he has a 2.22 ERA in 48 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, Delgado CC transfer and lefthander Christian Trent has been the most pleasant addition to this team.
The Rebels thought Trent would provide a boost, but it wasn’t until he shined during fall workouts that Bianco realized he might just have a true gem on his hands. The 6-foot, 185-pounder, won't blow hitters away with a mid-90s fastball, but he possesses good command of his pitches and has a very good slider to go with a good changeup. Trent has a 2.41 ERA in 52 1/3 innings, along with 46 strikeouts and six walks.
“Christian just really had a terrific fall and made it known that he was going to be an impactful player for us,” Bianco said. “He's not a super imposing guy out there, but he's absolutely good enough to beat you. He works both sides of the plate and he has a really good slider that kind of morphed from a curveball. That really has been a great pitch, then he adds a good changeup in there.
“He's a good pitcher who has a three-pitch mix and works deep into games,” he continued. “There's a lot to like about Christian.”
The Rebels also are enjoying some quality appearances from the bullpen. Talented righthanded pitcher Aaron Greenwood has been terrific this season, but could very well miss this weekend's series against Mississippi State because of an abdominal injury. However, Bianco's team has some arms more than capable of rising to the occasion, such as freshman lefthander Wyatt Short, who has a 2.40 ERA in 13 appearances, along with a fastball 90-91 mph, and a hard slider in the low-80s. Ole Miss also has been able to rely on hard-throwing Hawtin Buchanan (0.00) and righty Josh Laxer, who has a fastball anywhere from 92-96 with a hard slider.
“The bullpen has been really solid for us. We've blown a couple of leads in conference play, but when you really dissect our club after 30 games, we've done a pretty good job,” Bianco said. “Laxer is finally being that guy we always thought he could be. Then there are guys like Wyatt Shore, who just go out there each time out and have no fear no matter the situation."
Mature approaches from freshmen seem to be the norm for the Rebels. While Shore is the freshman taking care of business on the mound, the Rebels are enjoying the services of smooth shortstop Errol Robinson, Brantley Bell and, of course, athletic J.B. Woodman both at the plate and in the field.
"You don't see many freshmen come into this league and start from the first day at shortstop, and Errol is one of those guys talented enough to do that," he said. "The thing about all these young players is they're real athletic. Woodman, for instance, is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and he is just a good runner with great awareness."
Overall, the Rebels have made tremendous strides from an offensive standpoint. The Rebels finished last season with a .277 batting average, 23 homers and 91 doubles, along with a .364 slugging percentage. But this season? Ole Miss is hitting .305 with 24 homers, 51 doubles and a much improved .418 slugging percentage.
The big key to this offense has been the resurgence of athletic outfielder Auston Bousfield. Bousfield showed some great potential as a freshman two seasons ago, but took a step back as a sophomore last year. Now, Bousfield is hitting .333 with three homers and 23, while others such as Austin Anderson (.351/4/23), Will Allen (.346/5/38) and Sikes Orvis (.316/7/24) are performing like veterans.
"The interesting thing about this lineup is we've got a lot of guys who have been through this league, and who are older," Bianco said. "You combine that with a pretty good recruiting class and this is a stable offense."
Ole Miss entered the season with several question marks, but has since answered almost all of them.
Now comes the fun of positioning themselves for the NCAA postseason, and potentially as an NCAA Regional host.
STATEMENT TIME FOR LOUISVILLE
With the upper hand in the American Athletic Conference race up for grabs, the No. 10 Louisville Cardinals hit the road this weekend to face the surprising and elite Houston Cougars.
The Cardinals have a fantastic 24-8 overall record, along with a 4-2 mark in the AAC, but head coach Dan McDonnell still feels like his club’s best days are ahead.
“Starting the season, we weren't exactly 100-percent healthy on the mound. We didn't have Anthony Kidston and some other guys. On top of that, we the experiment of Joe Filomeno as a starting pitcher didn't work out,” McDonnell said. “Looking at this team, our biggest strength is depth, both on the mound and position wise. However, that can be good and bad.
“We don't necessarily need that much depth, we just need a couple of studs on the mound to be consistent and successful for the long haul,” he continued. “The good thing, though, is that depth has helped us deal with a few injuries.”
Though Filomeno's struggles as a starting pitcher and Kidston's setback earlier this season served as obstacles, sophomore righthanded pitcher Kyle Funkhouser helped stabilize the weekend rotation. The talented righty entered the spring with high expectations after a strong fall in which his stuff flourished. He hasn't disappointed thus far, tallying a 2.77 ERA in 52 innings, along with 46 strikeouts and 26 walks. But most impressive is his stuff, which has been electric with a fastball touching 95-96 mph past the middle innings.
“In our coaches meetings, we always remind ourselves that Kyle is only a sophomore. I can't remember, during my time here, many sophomores doing what he's doing now, and having this role,” McDonnell said. “What he's been doing so far this season gives us a lot of hope that he'll continue that trend the rest of the season. The most impressive to me about Kyle is that he's holding his velocity and showcasing elite stuff.”
After Funkhouser in the weekend rotation, junior righty Jared Ruxer is stepping up in impressive fashion, and Anthony Kidston, despite his early setbacks, is at times showing signs of becoming that expected premier arm.
Ruxer, who had a 5.63 ERA last season, has made significant improvements with a 2.72 ERA in 46 1/3 innings this spring, along with 40 strikeouts and 12 walks, a sure sign of good command. Meanwhile, Kidston has a load of potential with a 2.93 ERA in 15 1/3 innings, along with 17 strikeouts and 11 walks.
“The thing about Anthony is he's such a competitive kid. Coming off such a long layoff, he just needed to get back on the mound and work some of those mechanical kinks out,” he said. “Coach [Roger] Williams has worked with him on working some of those kinks out, and I've always envisioned him being a Kip Bouknight type of guy for us. Kip never did everything with his velocity, he just had a great ability to make pitches. That's the type of guy we envision Anthony becoming.”
While it will be up to the weekend rotation to get things started on a positive note this weekend against the Cougars, plenty of scouts and Major League Baseball brass are destined to be on hand to see Louisville reliever and righthanded pitcher Nick Burdi. Burdi, ranked the No. 12 college prospect at the midseason mark, has an explosive arm and impressive 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame, to go along with an unblemished earned-run average in 12 appearances and 15 innings of work, along with 28 strikeouts and five walks.
Some have said Burdi simply isn't being thrown enough. However, McDonnell said the scouts were buzzing last weekend as Burdi made a couple of appearances in a series against Memphis. Stuff-wise, Burdi continues to be dominant. Though he's not flashing the 99-101 on the radar gun like he did a few occasions last season, he's sitting 97-98 with a sharper slider.
“It's really been fun to see Nick's growth from his sophomore year. He made another jump and just has more composure out there. He's always been emotional, and he still gets that way sometimes, but he's toned it down a little more,” he said. “His fastball continues to be electric, and that 88-90 slider is as sharp as it has ever been. You throw in that changeup, and that gives him that important third offering. I thought last weekend was a pretty special coming out party for him.”
Burdi and Louisville haven't had many chances to make a statement on the weekend this spring, but that all changes with a road trip to Houston.
MORE SERIES TO WATCH
No. 15 Clemson at No. 2 Virginia: The Cavaliers are coming off a road series win over Pittsburgh, where sophomore lefthanded pitcher Nathan Kirby tossed a no-hitter. Meanwhile, the Tigers have a short week after losing a game to N.C. State on Monday to drop an important ACC home series. Clemson needs righthanded pitcher Daniel Gossett to rise to the occasion this weekend. Gossett has a 2.25 ERA in 44 innings,a long with 46 strikeouts and 15 walks. — THE PICK: Virginia
No. 1 Florida State at Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fought through some adversity and return home this weekend to face FSU in a huge series. FSU is coming off a home series sweep over Notre Dame, and has one of the premier arms in the game in righthander Luke Weaver. Meanwhile, the Jackets hope for a strong start from righty Matt Grimes, who has blossomed the past few weeks, and has a 3.21 ERA in 33 2/3 innings, along with 16 strikeouts and 13 walks. — THE PICK: Florida State
Florida at No. 5 South Carolina: How about the Gators in the midweek? The Gators finished off a season series sweep over rival Florida State this past week, and hope to continue their winning ways against the Gamecocks this weekend. UF moved righthanded pitcher Aaron Rhodes to the weekend rotation. Rhodes, who has a fastball up to 94, has a 2.48 ERA in 32 2/3 innings, along with 35 strikeouts and 10 walks. — THE PICK: South Carolina
No. 24 Arkansas at No. 11 LSU: Here’s a series that should be an absolute dandy. Arkansas didn’t start the season on an incredibly hot note, but has been much better as of late, especially last weekend against South Carolina. Lefthander Jalen Beeks has been terrific in the starting role this spring, while the same can be said for hard-throwing righty Chris Oliver, who has a 1.99 ERA in 45 1/3 innings, along with 35 strikeouts and 11 walks. — THE PICK: LSU
No. 8 Texas at Oklahoma: To say the Longhorns have had their way with the Sooners over the past decade would be quite an understatement. However, the Sooners have a new sheriff in town in coach Pete Hughes and hope to turn the tide. The ‘Horns have as good of a 1-2-3 punch as there is in Dillon Peters, Parker French and Nathan Thornhill, while outfielder Mark Payton is having an All-American type of year with a .361 batting average, 25 RBIs and a .480 on-base percentage. THE PICK: Texas
No. 23 Cal State Fullerton at No. 19 UC Santa Barbara: This series might just come down to which team isn’t the most banged up on the mound. The Titans welcome back righthanded pitcher Justin Garza, but only will have him available in a relief role this weekend. Meanwhile, the Gauchos have a talented sophomore lefthanded pitcher in Justin Jacome, but Jacome suffered some back stiffness last weekend and his availability this weekend is in question. — THE PICK: UC Santa Barbara
Auburn at No. 18 Alabama: The Tigers have had some bad luck the past couple of weeks, but what better way to right the ship than to hit the road and take a series from the Crimson Tide? Accomplishing that goal will be difficult with righthanded pitcher Spencer Turnbull and others leading the way for the Tide. Turnbull has stepped up this season with a 1.58 ERA in 45 2/3 innings, along with 34 strikeouts and a .195 opponent batting average. — THE PICK: Alabama
Wake Forest at North Carolina: After taking a series from Maryland last weekend, the Demon Deacons have to be feeling good about themselves and their chances of reaching the NCAA postseason. With that said, they must hit the road this weekend and take a series from a North Carolina club that has been struggling and needs an important series win. UNC hopes talented sophomore righty Trent Thornton can start the weekend on a positive note. Thornton is one of the few bright spots so far this spring with a 1.71 ERA in 58 innings, along with 52 strikeouts and 13 walks. — THE PICK: North Carolina
Oklahoma State at West Virginia: The Cowboys haven’t had a lot of opportunities to make significant statements this season, but this could be a series with postseason implications come May. The Mountaineers need to take care of business at home, and quietly have one of the nation’s better weekend rotations with Harrison Musgrave, John Means and Sean Carley leading the charge. — THE PICK: West Virginia
No. 6 Oregon State at Washington State: Remember when the Cougars looked to be in horrible shape overall? Well, Washington State has slowly but surely crept back into the Pac-12 race with a 6-3 league record, and really could help its cause this weekend with a home series win over the Beavers. To do that, one must likely get past OSU senior lefthanded pitcher Ben Wetzler, who has been on a mission this spring with a 0.38 ERA in 47 innings, along with 35 strikeouts and 13 walks. — THE PICK: Oregon State