The only thing that has hindered Will Ethridge this season is a blister on his middle finger.
Caused by the way he grips his breaking ball, the blemish first surfaced in his opening day outing against Wright State and led to an early exit. It cost him a start the next weekend at Tulane. Ethridge prematurely exited last week’s win over Florida in the fourth inning when the sore sprouted again. He skipped his weekly bullpen session and treated it as possible in order to avoid missing a second start this season because of it.
Neither the blister nor the bats of Kentucky bothered Ethridge in Ole Miss’ 8-2 win over the Wildcats on Friday.
“The blister was fine,” Ethridge said. “We are just going to continue to treat it and get ready or next week.”
Ethridge tossed seven shutout innings, surrendering just three hits with 11 strikeouts and no walks. Kentucky had a runner get to third base in the seventh inning after a passed ball and a productive grounder, but did not advance a runner past first base until Ethridge exited the game.
Ethridge’s stuff is as good as Friday night starter in the SEC when he’s mixing in the breaking ball and changeup to complement a well-located fastball in the low 90s. The junior’s swing-and-miss stuff was as sharp as hit has been all season. He’s shouldered the weight of being the anchor of this Ole Miss rotation seamlessly.
“He’s been good in just about every start he’s run out there,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “He was super dominant tonight.”
Ethridge’s fastball possesses a good amount of movement, which adds to the challenge for opposing hitters beyond simply catching up to the pitch.
“About the third inning, I realized they were swinging and missing on the fastball a lot,” Ethridge said. “From then on, I tried to keep them off balance with that and the curveball.”
The junior right-hander was the beneficiary of an early three-run cushion when Cole Zabowski hammered an opposite field homer over the left field wall off Wildcat starter Jimmy Ramsey. The blast plated a Grae Kessinger single and Thomas Dillard walk as Zabowski pounced on a misplaced changeup. It had an exit velocity of 102 mph.
Kessinger went 4-for-5 on the evening with a solo home run in the fifth. Kessinger is batting at a .524 clip in his last 10 games. He has eight multi-hit games in SEC play this season. Truthfully, has carried the top of the Ole Miss lineup since sliding down to the two-hole a couple weekends ago at Arkansas.
“It is just staying aggressive,” Kessinger said. “Having a lot of confidence, a plan and sticking with it. If you are swinging hard and seeing it well, that is a good combination.”
The move has freed Kessinger up, ridding him of the additional responsibilities that come with being a leadoff hitter, allowing him focus simply on driving the baseball.
“He is getting a lot of good swings off and tonight was no different,” Bianco said. “He is swinging it really well.”
As productive as Kessinger has been near the top, his fellow middle infielder has been nearly as fruitful at the bottom of the lineup. Anthony Servideo went 3-for-3 with a walk out of the nine hole and has collected 12 hits in his last five games. With the speed he possesses and a .449 on-base percentage entering the night, he serves as essentially a second leadoff hitter when the lineup turns over.
Ole Miss was won six straight SEC games. It has scored 62 runs in that game to their opponents’ 28. This lineup was thought to be one of the more potent in college baseball, but spun its wheels for the first six weeks of the season. The Rebels have settled into a regular lineup over the last two weeks and it is producing at an optimal level.
“Hitting is contagious,” Kessinger said. “If I am walking up there with confidence, I feel like everyone else is too. When you get a group of guys that have that confidence together, it can be dangerous.”
Game two has been moved to 1 P.M. on Saturday due to inclement weather.