Ole Miss Baseball season preview: The rotation

Most of the hay is in the barn for Ole Miss with regards to fielding a lineup. With seven starters returning — aside from a position battle at second base between Jacob Adams and Anthony Servideo, and finding the right fit in right field and designated hitter with the number of bats the Rebels have on the roster — most of what is left unsettled resides on the mound.

Opening Day is just over a week away and Ole Miss will have new faces in all three slots of its the weekend rotation. The Friday night starter is likely settled and one could surmise that Houston Roth will likely occupy one of the latter two spots.

With all of that said, here is a stab at projecting what the rotation might look like on opening weekend.

Friday: Will Ethridge

Ethridge will jog out to the mound and grab the baseball for the Rebels on opening day. This much we know. He’s appeared in a variety of different roles for Ole Miss in his two years. He’s been a midweek starter, a long relieve, saved a game and has entered the game in high leverage, late-inning situations to help Ole Miss win close games. His 1.2 innings of perfect relief at Alex Box Stadium against LSU in 2017 come to mind with regards to high leverage, and his 5.2 innings of handiwork out of the pen in the rubber game of a series Ole Miss won against the Tigers last season is an example of one of his better extended relief outings.

Ethridge’s first two years saw him adapt to a variety of different roles. He spent the fall and winter preparing for one single challenge — being the face of the Ole Miss rotation. It has afforded him more time to craft his secondary stuff, most notably a breaking ball with more bite and attaining a better command of his changeup.

“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.”

Being a Friday night starter in the Southeastern Conference is as tough a task as one can find in college baseball. Having three or four pitches in the repertoire is a necessity rather than luxury. Ethridge will sit 90-94 with the fastball. How well he commands his secondary stuff will go a long way in determining his success, as has been the case in the past for the junior right-hander.

“I have slowly started to throw my changeup more often,” Ethridge said. 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.”

Saturday: Houston Roth

Roth’s got a bit of a nastiness about him in terms of competitiveness that would equip him well to take the ball on Friday nights, but will be one of the better Saturday starters in the conference if he is indeed slotted there. He flashes a four-pitch mix with a breaking ball, slider and changeup behind a fastball that hovers around 90-92.

Roth started seven times in the midweek last season and once in the SEC Tournament championship game, logging innings and attaining experience that he thinks will be valuable when going through opposing lineups two or three times throughout the course of a game.
“I felt like I have honed in all of my pitches, am locating well and am ready to go,” Roth said. “I think it is going to help me run out and face batters in the first inning. Then, obviously, starting the SEC Championship game was a big stage with a lot of people. I feel like that is what weekends at Swayze are going to be like.”

Roth’s primary project in the offseason was bringing a slower, looping curveball back into the arsenal. It won’t be a wipeout pitch — though he thinks he can flip it over the plate at any time to freeze a hitter — but rather one to show to hitters to plant another possibility in their minds of what could be coming. The breaking ball and having a better feel for the changeup will be a couple of things to watch early on with Roth.

“I think I will throw all four pitches in pretty much any count,” Roth said. “Coming out of the bullpen, I was better off being a fastball-slider kind of guy. Being a starter, this fits more of my role. I want to have an extra pitch to change hitters’ eye levels. I think it is a good pitch to steal strikes, not so much to use it to punch someone out, but I can. I think it is a good pitch to use early the count to show a slower breaking ball.”

Sunday: Gunnar Hoglund

In the mix: Zack Phillips, Doug Nikhazy, Kaleb Hill

Hoglund turned down $1.9 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates after being drafted with the 36th pick in the MLB Draft this past June, and elected to go to school. He’s the second highest draft pick to put on an Ole Miss uniform and was immediately thought to be in the mix for one of the three open rotation spots upon his arrival.

Hoglund is a three-pitch guy with a fastball that will sit 90-94 a slower curveball and a changeup. He’s shown pretty good command of all three pitches, aside from being a little erratic with a fastball at times in the fall. Hoglund handles the bat pretty well too, which could potentially be a possibility at some point. But with Ole Miss’ not exactly being short on productive bats, that may not be something Bianco wishes to toy with, particularly if Hoglund finds himself starting on the weekend for the Rebels.

Again, this is just an educated guess as to how this third and final spot will shake out as there are others in the mix too. Freshman lefty Kaleb Hill impressed the staff in the fall, as did fellow lefty and junior college transfer Zack Phillips. Doug Nikhazy is another freshman lefty that will get a hard look as a starter — whether it be in the midweek or at the backend of the weekend rotation — after a fall that saw him whiff 17 hitters in 15 innings.

“I would still say it is pretty fluid,” Bianco said. “I think we’d like to get though this next weekend before we start naming names. I think everyone knows who is in the running, and that is good. I don’t necessarily look at that as a bad thing. If it was cut-and-dry, you wouldn’t have depth. That is a good thing.”

It an interesting situation and one that mostly bodes well for Ole Miss. It has to replace all three slots, but has two guys with a good bit of experience and a handful of talented new arms to choose from. Bianco and the staff are gaining an idea of what it will look like in just over a week and most everyone else will know soon enough as well.