STARKVILLE, Miss. — There’s no need for extra motivation when Ole Miss and Mississippi State meet on the baseball diamond, or in any sport, for that matter. But Rebels junior righthanded pitcher Chris Ellis couldn’t help but to get more amped up when fans beyond the right field wall uncontrollably heckled him prior to Friday night’s game in front of a Dudy Noble Field record crowd of 13,224.
Though Ellis showed some early jitters with some command issues in the first inning, he eventually settled down, while his counterpart, Mississippi State lefty Ross Mitchell, struggled the first few frames, allowing three runs the first two innings on the way to a 6-1 Ole Miss victory.
“I thought Chris had his best stuff in three or four weeks out there tonight. Mississippi State is the type of team that makes you work, and I thought he was terrific and made pitches when he needed to,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "I thought he had good command of the game, and I'm proud of the way he pitched tonight."
The Rebels improved to 28-8 overall, 8-5 in the Southeastern Conference. But the biggest story of the night was Ellis taking another step forward. Ellis, as we've highlighted several times, didn't have a significant role for the Rebels last season, partly because of an abdominal injury, and was thrown into the Friday role this season with the departures of Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers. There was some uncertainty before the season, but Friday night was another example of how Ellis has evolved into one of the elite starters in the SEC.
Ellis didn't rack up gaudy strikeout numbers against the Bulldogs, recording just two on the night, but walked just one batter and allowed just a run on eight hits in 6 2/3 innings. The talented righty also worked out of several jams in the contest, putting his maturity and poise on display in front of a raucous crowd.
Ellis typically has been 90-92, and up to 93, this spring, but was a tick higher against the Bulldogs. Past the first inning, Ellis commanded all of his pitches well, his fastball sitting anywhere 91-93, and up to 94, while his changeup was a quality pitch, thrown 82-83 mph. His best secondary offering was a 75-78 mph curveball that worked two ways against the Bulldogs. In some instances, Ellis threw his curveball 12-6 on the inside part of the plate, and for strikes, while he also threw the pitch away from hitters with good depth and late break.
"The biggest thing for me this season has just been becoming an all-around pitcher. In the past, I've had a bad tendency to try to throw the ball past guys, and now I think I'm just a pitcher," Ellis said. "For me, it's just a matter of throwing strikes. My velocity was up tonight from what the coaches were telling me, and I thought I did a pretty good job of throwing strikes with my secondary stuff."
Ellis moved down several spots in our latest College Top 50 prospect rankings, but could climb the list again if he can string together performances like tonight the final two months of the regular season.
As for the Bulldogs, Mitchell allowed six runs the first four frames, but somehow willed himself to 6 2/3 innings of work. Mitchell's stuff is nasty when he's on, particularly his slider. However, the Rebels were patient, didn't chase his outside stuff, and forced him to leave some low-80s fastballs over the plate with good results. Braxton Lee and Sikes Orvis each had two hits and two RBIs, while freshmen Errol Robinson and Brantley Bell each finished the night with a pair of hits, Robinson also showing smooth actions in the field at shortstop.
"Mitchell's stuff is just so good, and you can tell that by how many games he has won in this league. He's just a soft-tossing lefty who lives in the bottom of the strike zone, and you have to find a way to lay off some of those pitches," Bianco said. "Our guys did a terrific job with that tonight and were patient. It's definitely a learning process."
The mystique and rowdiness of Dudy Noble Field might've rattled Chris Ellis for a few minutes Friday night, but in the end, his offense stepped up the first few frames, providing him some ample support, and he got into a groove and tossed another gem.
Ellis and the Rebels landed the first punch in this important SEC series. Now, we'll see what the Bulldogs bring to the table on Saturday.
* Ole Miss has a very talented freshman class, and we got a nice glimpse of freshman lefthanded pitcher Wyatt Short. Short, who coach Mike Bianco detailed in our weekend preview as someone with a mature, poised, attitude, couldn't have been much better in a big-time atmosphere. Though only 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, Short struck out three, didn't walk anyone and allowed just two hits in 2 1/3 innings. Short sat 91-93 with his fastball, while also showcasing an 80-81 mph slider.
* Speaking of young players for the Rebels, this was my first glimpse at shortstop Errol Robinson. Robinson is listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds. He finished the contest 2-for-4 with two runs scored, showing a mature approach at the plate when he smacked a single to left field with the Bulldogs putting on a defensive shift on the left side of the infield. In addition to his prowess at the plate, Robinson also showed smooth actions from a defensive standpoint.
* Mississippi State didn't have a crisp game against the Rebels, making some baserunning mistakes, some miscues throwing the ball back into the infield, among other things. But the X-factor in this game was the top of the offensive lineup failing to produce. The top five hitters in the Bulldogs' lineup -- Jake Vickerson, Alex Detz, Brett Pirtle and Gavin Collins -- finished the contest a dismal 2-for-14. You won't win many Friday games in the SEC with that production.
* Though the Bulldogs struggled against the Rebels, outfielder Derrick Armstrong has been a bright spot over the past couple of weeks. Armstrong, who went 2-for-4 in the game, is hitting .455 in his last nine games, along with safely reaching base in a career-high nine-straight contests. Joining Armstrong with a productive night at the plate were Matthew Britton and Seth Heck, who each had two hits.
* With a victory in the series opener, it'll be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes out for Ole Miss should starting pitchers Christian Trent or Sam Smith get into trouble the next two days. The Ole Miss coaching staff informed me Friday morning that sure-handed reliever Aaron Greenwood would not pitch this weekend because of a cartilage issue around his abdominal muscle. There's no specific time-table for his return at this point.