An exit in the Oxford Regional a season ago was not the way Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco wanted it to end. The Rebels won more than 40 games in 2018 for just the seventh time in school history and capped it off with an SEC Tournament Championship victory.
It was the first time since 2006 that Ole Miss brought the tournament trophy home. They followed that up with a comeback win against St. Louis in the Oxford Regional before being bounced out of the postseason after two straight losses by a high-powered Tennessee Tech team.
Starting on Friday, the Rebels will have the opportunity to start fresh — a clean slate. A new season to make it to the ultimate goal of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco spoke at Baseball Media Day on Tuesday and revealed the starting pitching rotation and the batting lineup for the first series against Wright State.
Bianco lost all three weekend starters from last season, including first-round MLB Draft pick Ryan Rolison, Brady Feigl and James McArthur. Rolison was selected by the Colorado Rockies as the No. 22 overall pick.
“We lost the three starters from last year,” Bianco said. “So, that’s probably the biggest question mark (for our team).”
Will Ethridge, a junior, will get the start on Friday night, followed by junior lefty Zack Phillips and freshman Gunnar Hoglund on Saturday and Sunday.
“Will is a junior right-hander that has pitched in the bullpen for most of his career,” Bianco said. “I don’t even want to say arguably — I don’t think (he) left a doubt that he pitched better than anybody on our staff from the first intrasquad to last weekend.”
Hoglund, a Hudson, Florida, native, will be the first freshman pitcher to start a game for Bianco since 2003.
“(Hoglund) is a big power right-hander who turned down the (MLB) Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers after being drafted in the first round to show up on this campus,” Bianco said. “(He’s) probably the big, marquee name from that recruiting class that entered campus last fall.”
As expected, preseason All-American Parker Caracci will be the closer for the Rebels.
It may come as a surprise to some that junior Houston Roth didn’t crack the weekend rotation to start the year. However, Bianco expects him to play a major role on the team as the first arm out of the bullpen.
“(Roth) will probably be the first guy out of the bullpen on Friday,” Bianco said. “(He will) probably log a couple of innings in that game and start on Tuesday.”
Unlike the pitching staff, Ole Miss’s lineup features only returning faces.
Cooper Johnson will start at catcher, although Thomas Dillard is also expected to see time behind the plate.
“It’s a position I’m pretty familiar with. It’s what I grew up playing,” Dillard said. “It’s just been more reps, knocking the rust off, but the last few weeks have gotten me a lot more comfortable (at catcher). I’m just ready to do whatever coach Bianco wants me to do — whether that’s playing outfield or catching.”
Cole Zabowski at first base, Anthony Servideo at second, Grae Kessinger at shortstop and Tyler Keenan at third complete the infield. Servideo gets the opening day start but only by a small margin over Jacob Adams.
“Another huge competition is Jacob Adams and Anthony (Servideo),” Bianco said. “Both have played very similarly, and very good.”
In the outfield, Dillard will be holding down left field, again, with Ryan Olenek in center and Tim Elko in right. Chase Cockrell may see some time in the outfield and infield this season but was tabbed as the designated hitter to start the season.
“Cockrell and Elko, both moved to the outfield,” Bianco said. “Really a move they wanted as much as they did. They wanted to get on the field, and when you look at how talented a team we return, they knew that maybe the best opportunity was to move to the outfield.”
A year ago, pitching appeared to be the Rebels’ strong suit, and the batting order was presumably the problem heading into the year. Now the tables have turned: the batting order is seemingly the least of Ole Miss’s problems, as the returning players produced at a relatively high level on a fairly consistent basis.
“Hopefully, it gives (the pitchers) a little more confidence,” Bianco said. “It allows them to be more aggressive in the (strike) zone, realizing that this team is going to score runs.”
Ole Miss is ranked No. 10 by D1Baseball to start the season. It isn’t unrealistic to project them as a College World Series team. Ultimately, this is baseball, where anything can happen, and the unexpected often does.