After hurling a 1-2-3 ninth inning that saw him sit at 91 mph with his fastball and flip over a breaking ball for the first of two strikeouts in the frame, Ryan Olenek is serious about pitching.
Make no mistake about it, the centerfielder having pitching role is developing into a real thing.
“I mean, what you saw tonight, I don’t know why you would only use it for the midweek,” Olenek said. “I think it is a serious thing. I wouldn’t be out there if it weren’t serious. We are trying to win every baseball game. I think they seriously want me to pitch.”
Priority number one will still be Olenek being the team’s center fielder and utilizing his bat in the middle the lineup, one that has a started the season 13-for-27. But Mike Bianco is absolutely open to Olenek’s role as a pitcher expanding, citing that it became a possibility in the fall and has continued growth into a reality and a fairly significant role.
“It is tough with a position player because you have to use them in the right spot because you lose the DH,” Bianco said. “But there is no doubt we have to find a role for him. In the beginning, the hope was, could you eat up an inning or two. You have 36 innings for the week. Anytime you can eliminate a couple of those innings, it is better for the staff. I am not sure. The better he pitches, the more he will pitch.”
Olenek was a good pitcher in high school and there was thought to using him some as a freshman. He arrived on campus as a shortstop, but has made a career as an outfielder. Lately, he’s been throwing one bullpen roughly week. He boasts a fastball, a good breaking ball and a changeup that he did not throw in this outing. It was his second career outing. His first came when the Rebels’ were blown out by Tennessee Tech in the regional, last season’s penultimate game.
“I was a little higher in velocity in high school, but when you come here and play shortstop, throwing across the infield a hundred times and then in the outfield, it goes down a bit,” Olenek said. “I would say tonight was pretty consistent with where I have been.”
Olenek’s ninth inning capped a slog of a 12-6 midweek win over UT Martin to improve Ole Miss’ record to 5-2. The Rebels dodged a rocky start from Jordan Fowler, who made it just 1.2 innings, giving up five runs, three unearned, with three walks and two strikeouts. The Skyhawks plated four in the first and another in the second off the sophomore lefty, whose command was erratic and his stuff a bit flat.
This is becoming a bit of an early trend for Ole Miss. In its seven games, the only outing the team has received from a starter that reached the sixth inning was Will Ethridge’s 5.2 innings on opening day. The rotation has struggled behind him in two starts each from Zack Phillips and Gunnar Hoglund, and one start from Houston Roth. The sample size is still very small and each name mentioned will likely get at least one more opportunity to prove themselves as a starter, but the rotation is certainly priority number one for Bianco in the next couple of weeks leading into conference play.
Ole Miss matched UT Martin with four of their own in the bottom of the first and then blew the game open with a five-run third inning. Tyler Keenan, Thomas Dillard and Cole Zabowski all homered, personifying just how difficult the middle of the Rebels’ lineup can be to get through.
“One of the things that made the offense so good last year is that the bottom three or four always swung it,” Bianco said. “Guys like Keenan, Cockrell and Zabowski were at the bottom hitting double digit home runs and batting in the seven and eight hole. It is so hard for a staff to work through that lineup.”
Olenek had three hits. Carl Gindl had a hit with 4 RBIs and Cockrell plaited a run with a hit.
For as shaky as Ole Miss’ rotation has been, the bullpen has been quite good. That held true on this night. Five guys came in behind Fowler and allowed one run on four hits in the final 7.2 innings of the game. Fowler’s immediate successor, Connor Green threw 2.1 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief. He earned a win for the second consecutive game and is becoming one of the better stories on the team. Green held a significant role out of bullpen as a freshman, but the last two years have been hard on the senior right-hander. He made 20 appearances as a freshman, 12 as a sophomore and just nine last year.
“I just feel like I am in a good spot mentally now,” Green said. “I am just trying to help the team win. If I am in the dugout, I am just trying to be the best energy giver in the country or whatever is needed to get the offense going. If Coach B calls my number and it is time for me to shut the door, I will come in, throw strikes and get outs.”
His command slipped as his usage dropped during his sophomore and junior seasons. The stuff has always been good enough, Green thinks. After two frustrating years, that included changing arm slots to a side armer and then back to a three-quarter slot, his perseverance is paying off.
“Since his freshman year, he was just kind of putting himself in bad counts,” Bianco said. “We have experimented with the sidearm, but it couldn’t happen to a better kid in his senior year. It is nice to see the love his teammates have for him through his success.”
Ole Miss returns to action Friday against Long Beach State. First pitch is set for 6:30 P.M.
Tim Elko left the game after twisting his ankle.
Will Ethridge threw a bullpen on Tuesday off the mound after missing last week’s start with a blister. The staff will make a decision in the next two days as to whether he will pitch Friday.
photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics