The final leg of SuperTalk’s Ole Miss Baseball season preview, examines the Ole Miss bullpen, a group that will likely have more left-handed options than it did a season ago. The Rebels bring back a number of versatile right-handed arms to the pen, anchored by closer Parker Caracci at the back end.
Caracci exploded onto the scene last season, logging 10 saves and 73 strikeouts to 14 walks in 27 appearances. Caracci was Ole Miss’ greatest asset in high-leverage situations and ousted All-American Dallas Woolfolk as the team’s closer by mid-March. A heavy fastball that touches 96 and a hard slider to back it up made for an effective and overwhelming attack act the plate to opposing hitters. He’s one hell of a story, between redshirting twice and the struggles, he overcame in his personal life, on his way to becoming the most invaluable bullpen asset on a team that won the SEC West.
The high of entering a game in a tight situations has never faded for Caracci, despite doing it so often. Each time feels like the first one. Not in the sense that he feels ill-prepared, but rather relishing the rush that comes with it.
“Every time you get in there, the adrenaline starts flowing like I haven’t been there before,” Caracci said. “It is an awesome feeling.”
That’s not to say, he didn’t begin to feel more comfortable once he had success in the moment.
“The first one was Tennessee and I got a little rattled,” Caracci said. “After that, I figured out how to stay within myself and prepare that way every time.”
The redshirt junior threw 48 innings last season. Between that and a hefty load in the summer and fall leading up to it, Caracci’s arm was taxed more than it has been in a long time, if not ever. As he battled the war of attrition that comes with an SEC season, he learned how to take better care of his arm, and while his velocity has been down a tick or two during January practice, he feels good physically overall.
“Last year, at the beginning of the year I was just kind of going through it,” Caracci said. “As I got deeper into the year I started to figure out I needed to do more arm care, taking a day off or two during the week to keep the arm strength up.”
After Caracci, what does the Ole Miss bullpen look like? Well, it is a little uncertain at the moment and the trickle down effect from the rotation being set — which will happen over the weekend most likely — the bullpen personnel will be more clear. It does appear, however, that Mike Bianco will have more left-handed options out of the pen than he did a year ago. Doug Nikhazy is certainly in the running for a weekend rotation slot. Depending on how that shakes out, he and fellow lefty newcomers Kaleb Hill and Zack Phillips could be options out of the pen, though I think Nikhazy ends up being the midweek starter if Hogland clips him for a weekend rotation spot.
Hill is a freshman from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Phillips is a junior college transfer, and both have impressed the coaching staff through the fall and winter. Both will likely find some sort of role and could provide Bianco more flexibility as to his left-handed options out of the pen. Jordan Fowler — who split time as the team’s midweek starter with Houston Roth — is another lefty that would seem to project well for long relief. He was really the team’s only left-handed option out of the pen last year, and one of only three on the team along with Ryan Rolison and Pierce Smith.
From the right side, the Rebels bring back Maxwell Cioffi, who logged 14 relief appearances last season and pitched well in spots. The staff likes what they’ve seen from junior college transfers Taylor Broadway and Tyler Myers.
Overall, the bullpen roles will flesh themselves out in the season’s first few weeks and much is unknown at the moment. But Bianco has options. It is a collection of guys that largely won’t overwhelm lineups with velocity, but command pitches well, throw a lot of strikes and are solid, SEC-caliber arms. Below is how the lefty-righty disparity shake out amongst the staff, minus Will Ethridge and Houston Roth, who will be the team’s one and two starters in all likelihood.
Kaleb Hill Parker Caracci
Zack Phillips Connor Green
Jordan Fowler Maxwell Cioffi
Doug Nikhazy Gunnar Hogland