After two years of varying roles on the Ole Miss pitching staff, Will Ethridge spent the entire fall and winter preparing to assume the role of being the face of the Rebels’ rotation.
Immersed in that environment for the first time — a close game on a Friday night in the SEC — the junior right-hander flourished in a 1-0 win over Alabama.
“It might just be a one-run ballgame and it is my job to put up zeroes,” Ethridge said. “I think we are going to keep doing that every Friday night.”
Ethridge mixed in his changeup heavily early in the game in an effort to keep the Crimson Tide off balance and rode his fastball late. He struck out nine, scattered three hits and walked four in a 98-pitch performance. Half the walks came in the first inning and the last one was the final hitter he faced to begin the seventh. He stranded the two walks in the first and settled into a rhythm from the third inning on.
“Early on, I thought the changeup and the breaking ball were good,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “Later, I thought his two seam fastball took over. I thought the last two innings his fastball was really dominant.”
There wasn’t any real reason to inquire as to how Ethridge would hold up on that stage. He’d been sturdy in each of his three non-conference outings, allowing just one earned run in 13.2 innings entering the night, and was no stranger to high-leverage relief situations in conference play in his first two years. But to see it all come to fruition was satisfying for Ethridge and presumably Bianco as well. Ethridge spent the offseason preparing for this role, refining his secondary stuff, trying to be more consistent behind the fastball. Ethridge more than doubled his strikeout total for the season in this outing.
“The changeup was a really good pitch,” Ethridge said. “They were looking fastball and I had them off balance. When they looked for the changeup, we’d throw the fastball and they would fall behind. That was the biggest thing.”
Ethridge’s counterpart, Alabama righty Sam Finnerty, was sharp in his own right. Finnerty isn’t the prototypical Friday night SEC starter in terms of velocity. He never touched 90 mph and sat around 87 with his fastball. But Finnerty worked in a curveball, slider and changeup that were effective. Finnerty also made it six innings. He gave up a run on six hits with four strikeouts and two walks.
The only damage off Finnerty was the difference in the game. Cole Zabowski hammered a hanging curveball well over the right field wall in the second inning. Finnerty missed inside with a fastball to begin the at bat and Zabowski was anticipating an off-speed pitch when Finnerty misplaced the curveball.
“I knew there was a chance he was going to come with the off-speed,” Zabowski said. “I got it, up in the zone. It was nice to not miss it.”
Austin Miller relieved Ethridge in the seventh following a leadoff walk. Miller struck out two batters and induced a fly out to strand the runner. Bianco went with Parker Caracci for the last five outs, which were relatively stress free aside from a two-out double in the eighth. Caracci picked up his third save. Miller threw just 19 pitches, but had thrown 26 at Louisville two days earlier. Bianco elected to ride his All-American closer for the final five outs, perhaps to save Miller for one more appearance this weekend.
“We were going to let Miller go,” Bianco said. “I thought he was a really good match for them. But I think watching him run a three-ball count, velocity dropped a mile or two and you have one of the best cleanup hitters in the country, you better bring him in.”
After being swept in a two-game midweek series at Louisville, the latter of which a sloppy performance, Ole Miss played a clean game defensively. Most importantly, it pitched the ball well and avoided a first-inning misstep that had become a bit of a pattern. The Rebels are 1-0 in league play.
“Clean and a lot of strikes early,” Bianco said. “Will didn’t command the fastball well early and walked a couple of guys. But besides that, it is hard to argue with what we did on that side of the ball.”
Zack Phillips will take the baseball for the Rebels in game two. First pitch on Saturday is slated for 1:30 P.M.
Photo credit: Cam Brooks — Ole Miss Athletics