Will Ethridge has done a little bit of a lot in his first two years on Ole Miss’ pitching staff.
As a freshman he made 19 appearances with four starts. He helped Ole Miss salt away a Friday night win in Alex Box stadium against LSU with 1.1 innings of unblemished relief, earned a save against Missouri and and threw 7.2 scoreless with 10 strikeouts in a start against Georgia State.
Ethridge has done a lot: high-leverage situations, middle relief and toeing the rubber from the first pitch. But this fall and winter has consisted of him trying to mold himself to fit a lmuch larger, singular role — to be the ace of a weekend rotation that is replacing all three slots. The vacancy Ethridge will fill was occupied by a first round draft pick in Ryan Rolison.
“I have had to go back through that routine, find that laser focus to start the game and possibly go five, six, seven or even eight innings,” Ethridge said.
The mindset Ethridge is alluding to is one of the more stark contrasts in being a starter versus a reliever of any kind. When he came into the game with inherited runners in high-leverage spots, throwing strikes, throwing a lot of strikes and throwing strikes quickly was the primary goal. Being a starter allows more time to work the plate, blending the secondary stuff into the mix to keep hitters off balance. That’s what Ethridge has has struggled with in the past sometimes. The changeup was erratic, the slider inconsistent and the curveball hadn’t evolved.
“I relied heavily on my off-speed last year and didn’t have much success with it,” Ethridge said. “That is kind of why I was sidelined for a little bit.”
The curveball has been priority number one this offseason. Ethridge has worked with the staff to find an optimal release point and tweak his grip to produce a sharper break.
“We worked really hard on the curveball and trying to get more depth,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “One of the things out of the bullpen is sometimes it is difficult to use three pitches. It is tougher to work that many pitches into your arsenal. As a starter, sometimes it is necessary. It is an advantage as you face hitters multiple times.”
The changeup and slider have come along as well despite being temporarily shelved as maintenance was performed on the curveball.”
This fall, developing the curveball that has the extra depth has helped me turnover lineups easier,” Ethridge said. “I have slowly started to throw my changeup more often. It has been a big pitch for me, getting lefties to roll over on it and swing-and-miss on that. Developing the curveball this fall has been a big part of my success.”
These tweaks are hardly critiques. Ethridge has been a consistent and reliable contributor no matter the role. He’s walked 23 hitters in 91.2 career innings with 103 strikeouts. He’s got swing-and-miss stuff and can touch 95 with a good fastball. Opponents hit .234 off him in two seasons.
Ethridge has simply taken the offseason to refine the tools necessary to being the face of an SEC rotation.
“Being a starter now, I am the one setting the tone for the game,” Ethridge said. “I have to bring the energy back to the dugout for the bottom of the first inning for our offense to go out and put runs up.”
What does the rotation look like behind him? That is not yet concrete. It will likely include junior righty Houston Roth in some capacity. Freshman Gunnar Hogland has a good chance to round out the rotation. Lefty JUCO transfer Zach Phillips will get a look, as will fellow lefty Jordan Fowler and right-hander Greer Holston.
Much remains to be determined, but Ole Miss will ride into the season with Ethridge as its ace. The diverse roles he’s played in the past will certainly help him along the way as he tries to tackle his biggest challenge yet.
“Last year, I think we just had a really good staff,” Bianco said. “When you look at (James) McArthur, (Ryan) Rolison a first rounder and Brady Feigl really coming into his own in his second year, (Ethridge) kind of got pushed back out to the bullpen. I don’t think there was ever a time where we didn’t think Will would be a weekend starter here.”