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Johnson’s three hits leads Rebels in 10-1 win over Wright State on opening day

Cooper Johnson wants to have a more refined plan when he steps into the batter’s box this season. His past struggles at the plate have stemmed from pressing, his approach unclear and poor at bats only made him press harder.

In Ole Miss’ 10-1 opening day win over Wright State, Johnson had three hits, including a solo shot to center field in the second inning and an RBI single through the left side in the first. He was sitting first-pitch fastball in his first at bat in the second because Wright State starter Bear Bellomy had offered nothing else on the first pitch to anyone to that point. He was fooled with an off-speed pitch, but then adjusted. An elevated fastball came on a full count four pitches later and Johnson demolished it over the center field wall.

“I looked at the chart and it said he hadn’t thrown off-speed on the first pitch yet,” Johnson said. “He threw one off-speed and it caught me off guard a bit. I just settled in and looked for a good pitch to hit and I got one.”

A lot is made of Johnson’s arm and defensive skills behind the plate, and rightfully so despite some sporadic receiving slip ups, but he’s worked at becoming a more polished hitter and saw the results of that on Friday.

“He’s worked so hard offensively and he’s had a really good fall and a really good early spring,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “He deserves to have one of these nights on opening day.”

Johnson’s blast followed a Tyler Keenan solo shot in the first. Ole Mis starter Will Ethridge had a two run cushion after two innings. Ethridge battled through a 29-pitch first frame to turn in an efficient 5.2 innings of four-hit ball. Ethridge did not allow a run, walked two and struck out five on 82 pitches. The first inning laboring was more so a result of Wright State fouling off pitches than erratic command or anything else. Ethridge threw strikes. His velocity was up, sitting at 93-94 and touching 95 with the fastball. He commanded his secondary stuff well found his slider more and more as the game wore on.

“I knew I was filling up the zone pretty well,” Ethridge said. “I just trusted my defense better from the second inning on and just kept filling it up, letting them get themselves out. They played great defense behind me.”

Ethridge escaped a pinch in the fourth. He walked Peyton Burdick to lead off the inning and surrendered a single to Zane Harris a batter later to put two on with no one out. A fly out put men at the corners and Ethridge got Zach Weatherford to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning and keep the Raiders scoreless. It was a nifty turn between Grae Kessinger and Anthony Servideo.

“The 29-pitch inning was more of them battling offensively and putting together good at bats than anything he did,” Bianco said. “I thought he had electric stuff.”

Ole Miss blew the game open in the middle innings. Thomas Dillard went 3-for-5 with an RBI and Cole Zabowski collected a pair of hits.

Austin Miller finished the game for Ole Miss in an extended relief outing of 3.1 innings, allowing a run on three hits with two strikeouts and no walks. Miller is a junior college transfer with good breaking ball, changeup and a fastball sitting in the low 90s. With Houston Roth sidelined with a sprained AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder, Miller filled in nicely as the first man out of the pen.

“I had really good feel for everything today, breaking ball was great and the changeup, coach trusted it so we were throwing it,” Miller said. “It was nice to go out there and get a good feel for things.”

Miller started sporadically in intrasquads and projects well to long-middle relief if he continues to pitch efficiently. It is the first game, after all.

Ole Miss is back at it on Saturday at noon with lefty Zack Phillips on the mound.


— Ryan Olenek was hit in near the hands in sixth inning and left the game. Bianco didn’t know much specifically on his status, but Olenek was still in the dugout after the game and didn’t appear to be in too much pain.

— Roth threw off the mound this week and Bianco described his status as “further along than we thought.” Roth was originally slated to start Tuesday’s game against Arkansas State. His status for Tuesday is still up in the air.

— Ethridge left the game in the sixth with a blister. He seemed to be ok after the game and got treatment on it immediately. Bianco is hopeful Ethridge will not have to miss a start.

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