The rotation is set, as is the opening day lineup and a team with lofty expectations will take the field for the first time since a somber exit last June after two Monday losses to Tennessee Tech at Swayze Field.
Head coach Mike Bianco acknowledged the pain last year’s disappointment brought, but didn’t have much doubt as to the resiliency of the guys returning for 2019.
“It was a tough,” Bianco said. “It was as tough a day in baseball as I have ever had and I have had a lot of days in baseball.”
Bianco released the rotation. Will Ethridge will start Friday. The junior has spent essentially the entire offseason preparing to be the face of the rotation and the first chapter of that challenge begins on Friday.
In a little bit of a surprise, lefty and junior college transfer Zack Phillips will start on Saturday, a role many thought would be manned by junior Houston Roth. Phillips is a kid with a fastball in the low 90s with a sharp curve and a changeup. He’s worked hard to flip the breaking ball into the strike zone more frequently and has see his strike percentage rise in each week of intrasquads with that pitch.
“He’s got electric stuff and we knew that from the fall,” Bianco said. “He has pitched really well in particular the last couple of weeks in intrasquads and has been as dominant as anyone on the team. He gives us a little different look with a left-hander sandwiched in between two righties.”
Gonnar Hoglund, the crown jewel of the 2018 recruiting class who spurned the Pirates after selecting him in the first round of the MLB Draft in June, will get the baseball on Sunday. Hoglund has a fastball that sits 90-94 with a curve and a hard slider. He commands all three well and is as polish of a freshman as you’d venture to find in the SEC. Hoglund handles the bat pretty well too and will hit at some point in his Ole Miss career, though likely not much this season as the team has no shortage of bats.
“Since (Hoglund) walked on campus, I think I mentioned (Ethridge) having as good a spring and fall as anyone,” Bianco said. “The second guy, without a doubt, would be Gunnar.”
There were a number of arms in the running for the three open rotation slots (two really with Ethridge being a virtual certainty), but the notable odd man out here is Roth, who will be the first guy out of the bullpen on Friday and will likely start on Tuesday against Arkansas State. The rotation is not set in stone. It is the first weekend after all, but Roth is a little more versatile than others in terms of projecting as a starter and a reliever. He did both last year, starting in the midweek and being effective out of the pen on the weekend, though he wasn’t asked to do the latter as often.
“I think it helped knowing that (Roth) has been such an effective part of our bullpen the last couple years,” Bianco said. “The other factor, and probably the biggest factor, is how dominant Phillips looked the last two weekends entering the season.”
Bianco also set the opening day lineup. There weren’t any major surprises and the only two areas of uncertainty were whether Servideo or Jacob Adams would be at second base and who would be in right field. Both Servideo and Adams will play until one of them creates separation from the other. Right field will likely be occupied by a number of guys like Carl Gindl, Cockrell, Adams or Servideo at some point. Right field will be a slot — along with designated hitter — Bianco will use to get a number of different guys at bats, particularly early in the season. Ole Miss has a surplus of bats on its roster and how Bianco manages to get a number of different guys plate appearances to see what his most productive lineup is will be interesting to watch unfold.
Opening Day lineup
C – Cooper Johnson
1B – Cole Zabowski
2B – Anthony Servideo
SS – Grae Kessinger
3B – Tyler Keenan
LF – Thomas Dillard
CF – Ryan Olenek
RF – Tim Elko
DH – Chase Cockrell
“Position-wise there will be a few changes,” Bianco said. “Maybe a guy that was DH-ing ends up in the outfield, another guy switches positions. For the most part, there will be enough of that movement throughout the year. The biggest thing for us in these four weeks before facing Alabama in the opening SEC series is feeling good about the rotation and the bullpen understanding their roles.”
Most everything is set for this team aside from delegating roles among the pitching staff. Last year’s disappointment will loom over this team in the eyes of most outsiders, even if it doesn’t linger with the team internally. The expectations are high and the Rebels have a talented group. Friday signifies the first chapter of a new journey for Ole Miss as it tries to erase the memories of 2018 and reach what it feels is its full potential.
“I think we are always motivates to get back out there,” Bianco said. “To get to the College World Series and win a national championship for our university.”