Ole Miss will open the baseball season today as it welcomes the TCU Horned Frogs in a rematch of last year’s season opener and Regional Championship. The Rebels went 2-3 against TCU last season. First pitch for the opener is set for 4 p.m. from Swayze Field.
The 2011-12 Ole Miss baseball season ended on a sour note when Ole Miss went down in its Regional Championship game to TCU. The Rebels and Horned Frogs had a history last year, playing five times over the course of the season, with TCU winning three of the five contests.
Now, No. 13 Ole Miss has a shot at avenging its championship game loss this weekend as the No. 14 Horned Frogs roll into Oxford Friday to begin the 2013 season.
“It’s certainly a big challenge,” head coach Mike Bianco said Monday during a press conference.
“The kids are excited. I know the fans will be excited. It kind of adds something to that opening weekend.
“You’re always excited to put the uniform on for the first time, but to know that you’re going to have a team in here that’s ranked in the top 10, somebody that’s obviously a really good team and somebody that went to the College World Series a few years ago, it will be a huge challenge for us.”
TCU returns all three of its weekend starting pitchers from last season, and with another year of experience under its belt, it will pose a challenge for Ole Miss hitters.
Opening up the series will be sophomore left-hander Brandon Finnegan, who posted a 4-5 record in his freshman season. Finnegan faced Ole Miss three times last season, including two appearances in postseason play.
He was tabbed with the loss in the opening game of the Regional, giving up two runs without recording an out.
Finnegan bounced back and got the win on Sunday of the Regional by throwing 7.1 innings where he gave up just two runs on six hits with seven strikeouts, which forced the Regional to a sudden death game that saw the Horned Frogs come out on top.
Saturday, sophomore right-hander Preston Morrison will get the nod. He was the ace for TCU at the end of last season, posting a 9-2 record on the year.
Morrison got the win against the Rebels in the regular season out of the bullpen, throwing 3.1 innings of perfect baseball. In the Regional, Morrison gave up two runs in 6.1 innings, resulting in a no-decision.
Junior right-hander Stefan Crichton will start the series finale Sunday. Crichton, who was also 9-2 last season, gave up three runs in 4.2 innings of TCU’s win over Ole Miss in the regular season. The Rebels did not face Crichton in the Regional.
“All three of their pitchers are very good, just like our three,” senior outfielder Tanner Mathis said.
“They’re capable of throwing the ball in the low-mid 90s and the one guy in the upper 90s. We just have to stick with our game plan. If we do that, I think we’ll be very successful.”
“Their pitching staff pounds the strike zone. I don’t remember a lot of walks, I remember a lot of strikes early.”
The Rebels have stressed the importance of scoring runs this season, and Bianco is confident that this year’s team will be able to improve on its marks from last year at the plate.
“We’ll be able to handle the bat better than we did last year,” Bianco said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we hit as many home runs. We lose a couple of boppers in (Zach) Kirksey and (Matt) Snyder, but I think (Alex) Yarbrough only hit a couple of home runs last year.”
“When you look at guys like Will Allen and (Preston) Overbey, (Auston) Bousfield’s going to hit some home runs, as well as (Stuart) Turner. We’re going to be all right in that category. I think we’re going to score more runs than last year. We certainly need to. That was one of the things last year, we had trouble pushing runs across. We did a lot of great things offensively, but at the end we have to be able to score a few more runs.”
Mathis will be the catalyst at the top of the lineup for Ole Miss. Last season, he led the team with a .460 on-base percentage and ranked second on the team with 88 hits. This season though, Mathis expects the whole lineup to be a threat.
“The biggest thing is batters one through nine, there’s no easy out. Even 10, 11 and 12, from what I’ve seen in the fall and spring, everybody grinds for their at bats,” Mathis said.
“Everybody does exactly what (hitting) coach (Cliff) Godwin wants us to do as far as the two-strike approach and everything goes. It just boils down to us getting on base and having the middle and the end knocking us around and getting us in.”
The Horned Frogs enter opening weekend with a stacked lineup. TCU returns sophomore first baseman Kevin Cron, who belted six home runs last season for the Horned Frogs, and senior infielder Jantzen Witte, who posted a .315 batting average last season, which ranks second among returning players only behind Cron.
“They’re a really talented team,” junior right-handed pitcher Bobby Wahl said.
“They return most of their starters. They’re a very well-coached team and very disciplined. They’re a top-10 team. Obviously pitching against them a couple of times last year, it helps going in there and knowing what that offense is capable of and knowing your opponent. They’re very talented, and I just have to be ready to go on Friday.”
Wahl will take the mound Friday night as the starting pitcher for the Rebels and will be tasked with taking on the talented TCU lineup. It will be Wahl’s fourth start against the Horned Frogs. Last season, he went 2-1 against TCU with a 4.41 ERA in 16.1 innings. The Springfield, Va., native also totaled 16 strikeouts to just three walks in those outings.
Junior right-hander Mike Mayers will get the nod in game two for Ole Miss. Mayers was 6-3 a season ago with a 3.50 ERA.
He faced TCU in relief in the regular season, giving up two runs on one hit with eight strikeouts in four innings on the mound. In the season finale, Mayers gave up three runs, two earned, in two innings of work.
Sophomore right-hander Chris Ellis will start Sunday’s contest. Ellis was 4-0 in 19 appearances during his freshman campaign, but he had just one start. Ellis is looking to be a consistent starter on the back end of the weekend that Ole Miss did not have a year ago.
The Rebels and Horned Frogs will begin their three-game series at 4 p.m. at Oxford-University Stadium-Swayze Field and continue at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and wrap things up at noon on Sunday.
Wahl Named To Golden Spikes Award Watch List
Junior right-hander Bobby Wahl became the latest Ole Miss baseball player to find himself a candidate for the Golden Spikes Award when USA Baseball announced the preseason watch list for the award on Thursday.
The Golden Spikes Award is given annually to the top collegiate baseball player and is sponsored by Major League Baseball and presented by USA Baseball.
Ole Miss Sports Information contributed to this report.
For continuing coverage of Ole Miss baseball, follow @SigNewton_2 and @thedm_sports on Twitter.