About ten minutes before Ole Miss takes field this Friday against Utah, Mike Bianco will walk towards home plate to meet with the opposing coach and umpires. Usually, it’s a pretty animated conversation as he points out various nuances across Swayze Field. During this discussion, he will also submit his lineup card.
A mere formality that the 16th year head coach that has had to put a lot more thought into this season than he has with some of his other 40 win teams and regional hosts.
“I think every year you try to make moves,” Bianco said. “Sometimes its on the staff, sometimes its the position players, sometimes its the lineup.”
He certainly has made his fair share of moves this year.
Ole Miss came out of the gates sprinting. It took two of three from the number two overall national seed, Louisville, and entered SEC play with a 17-1 record. After a series win at Tennessee to open league play, the road began to get rocky.
The Rebels lost five of their next six SEC games. They were swept at home by South Carolina before dropping a series on the road at Mississippi State. After its Saturday loss to the Bulldogs, the Rebels were 2-6 in league play before a salvaging a Sunday win in Starkville.
The rotation simply was not getting it done.
“We started the year the Chad (Smith) and Sean (Johnson) at number two and number three in the rotation, and it worked at the beginning,” Bianco said. “But it kind of got stale there for a while.”
The next month became a game of musical chairs as Bianco tried several different guys to try to solve the puzzle that was his weekend rotation. One of the pieces fit immediately, and that was sophomore left-hander David Parkinson.
“I think one of the things that really made us go was when David went that two spot in the rotation,” Bianco said.
After a win at Arkansas, and seven strong innings of one-run ball at Alabama the next week, one of the pieces was filled. But the fact of the matter was, it needed a guy to give it a chance to win on Sundays.
From Sean Johnson to Wyatt Short to Andy Pagnozzi, James McArthur, and then back to Chad Smith, Ole Miss stayed afloat, finishing 16-6 in its final 22 SEC games.
“I tell you the one thing that I’m really proud of Chad is that he handled it,” Bianco said last Friday in Hoover before Smith started in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
“Not just mentally, but his body language, and being a team guy. Whatever we asked him to do, he accepted it. When it became just a reliever, or midweek starter, he earned his way back. As a coach, when you see those moments, you’re proud of them.”
It was a clear lock to host a regional, something that seemed a bit far fetched on that Saturday afternoon in Starkville in late March.
The mound isn’t the only place where the Rebels have made some significant adjustments this year. Bianco has used five guys in a revolving outfield that is anchored by J.B. Woodman in center, and later Ryan Olenek as well.
“Of course there are a lot of different stories in the outfield where we’ve played some different people,” Bianco said. “Kyle (Watson) had a terrific SEC Tournament, and of course a great story in Ryan Olenek who has played well it seems like for part of the season, but really most of the season now as a true freshman out in right field out of position.”
Seniors Connor Cloyd and Cameron Dishon have platooned out in the outfield as well, and have provided a lift when needed.
“Really have had some guys play well, and when they haven’t, other guys have stepped up,” Bianco said.
The offense has been a work in progress at different points in the year as well. The offense averaged just 3.5 runs in its first nine SEC games compared to 5.8 over its final 21 after that.
Several players have moved around the batting order. Errol Robinson has hit as high as leadoff and as low as ninth. Henri Lartigue has batted anywhere from second to sixth. Olenek has fluctuated from the two-hole to eighth as the Bianco tweaked and tinkered until he found maximum production.
“We’re really clicking on all cylinders right now. Coach has finally found the lineup he likes,” Colby Bortles said in Hoover. “In the beginning of the year, we all were saying there are so many pieces to this lineup and we can be really good offensively. Moving toward the SEC Tournament, I think everybody can see the offense we have.”
The lineup has seemingly hit its stride. The Rebels scored 35 runs in four games in the SEC Tournament, coming against the likes of South Carolina’s Clarke Schmidt and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Sheffield. Bianco adjusted until he found one that fit, and with the regional coming in five days, it could not have come at a better time.
When Bianco hands over his card on Friday, he’ll likely do so with a little more clarity than at other points this year, and though it is not necessarily something on his mind, this has been one the most masterful coaching jobs of his career.