Reloaded Rebels ready for new season

Published 1:13 am Saturday, February 15, 2014

Going into Friday’s season opener against Stetson, Ole Miss doesn’t have a preseason All-American like Bobby Wahl or Drew Pomeranz.

What they do have is depth, thanks to the eighth-ranked recruiting class, according to Baseball America, and a developing toughness. Last season, the Rebels started 21-3, then struggled down the stretch and didn’t finish as expected with an early ouster in the Raleigh Regional.

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco doesn’t see that happening with this year’s team.

“One of the things we talked about this last summer and going into the fall — it’s kind of a mantra or catch word — is toughness,” Bianco said Monday at his season-opening news conference. “We’ve been so close to being a great team the last couple of years. Because of a pitch here or a play there, literally coming down to a game here or there. It hasn’t happened to us for one reason or another. The difference from the great teams is they make that one play. They make that pitch. One of the things we talk about a lot is being tougher, being mentally tougher and being able to handle adversity.”

The rotation will be bit untested, with junior Chris Ellis (1-2, 5.57 ERA in 13 appearances and two starts) handling Friday night starts and redshirt sophomore Christian Trent (9-2, 2.77 ERA in the JUCO ranks), a transfer from Delgado Community College, on Saturday. Sam Smith (3-1, 3.41 ERA with 15 starts), who has been Ole Miss’ No. 3 starter for the last two years years, will continue his Sunday role. Ellis was to be the Sunday starter for the Rebels, but a torn abdominal muscle sidelined him and his role was in flux.

“It was hard for me to find him a role last year,” Bianco said. “Way into the season, we tried to rush him back. We tried him in some relief appearances. We just really never got him back on track. He had a terrific summer this summer in the Cape (Cod League). It’s a guy that’s projected to be a first rounder in the draft this coming June.”

The top guy out of the bullpen will be Aaron Greenwood (3-5, 2.66 ERA in 27 appearances). His role will be a little different, going from middle relief to more of a setup role. As far as the closer, the Rebels are still looking for that one guy to finish games. Expect closer by committee, at least in the early going.

“We don’t really have a closer because we don’t have that one inning guy that’s going to warm up every single game to come in the game in the ninth inning,” Bianco said. “Certainly, that’s an important part. You have to have somebody at the end of the game that you trust and believe in that can finish the game. At the beginning, we’re going to go with Aaron first — kind of how we used (R.J.) Hively a couple of years ago. That guy will get saves. Aaron will be the first to come in that latter part of the game when you need to win the game and have a lead. We’ll use him in that role. If somebody, as time goes on, proves that he can be the guy to warm up in the ninth inning.”

Senior Austin Anderson (.310 average, 12 doubles, and 39 RBIs) will be moving from shortstop to third base. True freshman Errol Robinson will take over at short.

“He’s an outstanding defender,” Bianco said of his freshman shortstop. “He has to continue to improve offensively, but he’s a kid who when you watch him as a shortstop and a true freshman his range, his baseball awareness and he’s a terrific player who is going to have a long career. We have to continue to work on the bat and his strength, but I’m super proud of him.”

Preston Overbey (.280, five home runs, 10 doubles and a triple with 37 RBIs) returns at second base, while Sikes Orvis (.237, three home runs, three doubles and a triple with 21 RBIs) will man first and Will Allen (.231 ,four home runs and five doubles and 23 RBIs) will handle catching duties.

The outfield will be strong again and have plenty of depth, with JUCO transfer Braxton Lee, junior centerfielder Auston Bousfield (.253, two home runs, 10 doubles, three triples and 25 RBIs) and freshman Will Jamison getting the initial starts there. Bianco has no problem going with either freshman J.B. Woodman or the versatile Colby Bortles, who can play first, third or designated hitter, off the bench as well.

“One of the biggest challenges for myself and the staff is over the first four weeks is, because of the depth, work as many guys and get as much substantial playing time for as many guys as we can,” Bianco said. “As many innings on the mound, not only for the starters, but the bullpen guys, and try to define some roles, even more so.”