Feb. 10, 2017
By Adam Kuffner, Ole Miss Athletics Communications
Coming off a 43-win season in 2016 and hauling in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, expectations are high for the Ole Miss baseball team this season.
“On paper, we look extremely young with a combined 28 freshmen and sophomores. But the truth of the matter is, the upperclassmen have played huge roles already in the program,” said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, who enters his 17th season at the helm of the program and is the winningest active coach in the SEC. “Of the sophomores that return, we have three Freshman All-Americans from last year. So we do have experience even though they’re guys that haven’t been in the program a long time. They’ve already made their mark, and we’re looking for those guys to take another step forward. Along with the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country, there’s certainly an influx of a lot of talent that stepped on the field this fall.”
Despite six players getting selected in the 2016 MLB Draft (J.B. Woodman, Errol Robinson, Henri Lartigue, Brady Bramlett, Chad Smith, Wyatt Short), the Rebels return five starters in their everyday lineup led by senior and Preseason All-American Colby Bortles. From playing in 40 games and earning a start in the 2014 College World Series as a freshman to starting all 62 games last year, he has made his mark on the program. The Oviedo, Florida, native has appeared in 158 games through the first three seasons as a Rebel, making 129 starts. As a .272 career hitter, Bortles has been known for his power at the dish with 34 doubles and 17 home runs. In 2016, Bortles led the Rebels in doubles with 21, ranking second in the Southeastern Conference as well as fifth in Ole Miss history for a single season.
Second baseman Tate Blackman also returns for his junior season following a 2016 campaign in which he earned second team All-SEC honors. He had a big sophomore campaign with 74 hits to go along with a .322 average at the plate. The Altamonte Springs, Florida native led the SEC with seven sacrifice flies, a mark that ranked 19th in the country. Blackman started all 62 games at second base and helped Ole Miss turn a SEC-best 30 double plays in conference games. Blackman’s hits were second on the team along with 48 runs scored and 21 multi-hit games. Reaching base in 58 of the 62 games, he tallied 38 RBI throughout the 2016 campaign.
With a large group of young Rebels and losing several leaders from last season’s team, Blackman and Bortles were chosen by their teammates to be captains for the 2017 season. Bortles will be a captain for the second consecutive season, while Blackman moves into a leadership role as a junior. With the pair of Rebels having so much experience on the diamond, they were a logical choice to be elected captains.
“It’s not mentioned very much, but one of the biggest things to impact your program over the years is when you have kids return for their senior year or guys pass up the opportunity to play professional baseball,” said Bianco. “Tate was a draft-eligible sophomore and had the opportunity to leave after a great year. They’re guys that love Ole Miss, love the program and aren’t ready to be done with this part of their lives yet. Pro ball is waiting in the wings when they finish their careers here. When kids like that return, people talk about their statistical impact, but you forget about the leadership and what that means to your program. Those two are great leaders that set great examples for the team.”
Other returners feature junior Kyle Watson and sophomore Ryan Olenek, a pair of infielders who have used their athletic abilities to convert to the outfield. Watson was primarily part of the left field platoon with 2016 graduate Cameron Dishon, shining at the end of the season to earn a spot on the NCAA Oxford Regional All-Tournament team. Olenek made an immediate impact as a freshman, starting in 48 games and posting a .265 batting average.
A new addition to the outfield is a veteran who will be switching positions for a third time in as many seasons. As a freshman, Will Golsan used his bat to earn the starting nod at second base. With the loss of Sikes Orvis, he moved to first base last season and started 61 games at the position. This year, the coaches are looking to take advantage of his versatile skills and explore Golsan as an outfielder.
“After two years in the infield, we may have found his best position in the outfield where he can really show his athleticism,” said Bianco. “Will can really run, throw and cover ground out there. We’re looking for him to move to one of the corner outfield spots.”
With Golsan moving to the outfield, first base is up for grabs. Redshirt-sophomore Michael Fitzsimmons, who started as a designated hitter last year, will battle junior college transfer Chase Cockrell and incoming freshman Cole Zabowski for the spot. Following whoever wins the job, the other two could see action at DH.
Back on the mound, the Rebels return nine arms, including three Freshman All-Americans. Two of those Freshmen All-Americans, Brady Feigl and James McArthur, could earn a spot in the weekend rotation. Feigl made all 26 appearances out of the bullpen last year, but posted a 4-0 record with a 3.76 ERA. McArthur was a midweek starter for most of the 2016 season, going 6-1 with a 4.26 ERA in 61.1 innings. The other Freshman All-American, Andy Pagnozzi, will be an important piece of the Ole Miss pitching staff after recording eight wins out of the bullpen last season.
Two more sophomores that expect to see a lot of innings out of the bullpen are Connor Green and Dallas Woolfolk, who recorded the two lowest ERAs on the team in 2016. They’ll be relied on to set up the game for Will Stokes, who becomes the primary closer after Wyatt Short got drafted by the World Series champion Chicago Cubs. Stokes tied a school record with 30 appearances a season ago, pitching 43.0 innings and adding seven saves to his résumé.
Although Ole Miss returns several pitchers, the biggest question mark for Coach Bianco will be the weekend rotation. Last season’s ace Brady Bramlett was drafted but decided to retire from baseball to attend grad school and focus on his aspiration of becoming an athletics director. David Parkinson had a breakout debut season as a Rebel last year; the southpaw posted a 2.78 ERA as the No. 2 pitcher in the weekend rotation. Sunday games featured a mixture of Rebels getting the start. Sean Johnson will be back as one of two seniors on the team, but he is expected to pitch in relief this season. Chad Smith was drafted in the 13th round by the Miami Marlins, deciding to forgo his senior season. With rotation spots up for grabs, look for a couple freshmen to compete for a shot on the weekend. Will Ethridge and Ryan Rolison, a pair of High School All-Americans who were drafted but decided to come to Ole Miss, could be in the mix following stellar high school careers.
Speaking of freshmen, joining the veterans will be 17 newcomers that make up the No. 1 nationally-ranked recruiting class, the first No. 1 recruiting class in Ole Miss Athletics history. Seven high school All-Americans lead the group, including four that decided to continue their careers in Oxford despite being selected in the 2016 MLB Draft. Five incoming Rebels were ranked in the top 100 of high school baseball prospects, giving Ole Miss more than any other school in the country. After competing throughout the fall, don’t be surprised if you see a few of the newest Rebels on the field for opening day.
“They’ll have to because there are some holes to fill from some guys that were stars here who are now playing professional baseball,” mentioned Bianco. “There are definitely opportunities for the young, talented recruiting class to step on the field immediately and play.”
One freshman that will fill a much-needed void will be a familiar name to the Ole Miss faithful. With Errol Robinson departing for the pros after a stellar three-year career as the Rebels’ starting shortstop, Oxford native Grae Kessinger looks to claim the position. Kessinger, another High School All-American, is the grandson of former Chicago Cubs All-Star, Ole Miss two-sport star (basketball and baseball) and baseball coach Don Kessinger.
“When you lose your shortstop, that’s the number one need to look at,” said Bianco. “Grae Kessinger had a great fall and looks to be the starting shortstop.”
Another important piece of the Rebel puzzle that needs filling is behind the plate. Henri Lartigue turned into an All-SEC catcher and Johnny Bench Award semifinalist in 2016. He and his team-leading .353 batting average are now in the pros, leaving the door wide open for a highly-touted freshman to possibly slide into the starting role.
“Cooper Johnson caught really well in the fall and could be the starting catcher behind the plate,” said Bianco. “Thomas Dillard is a guy that’ll back Cooper up, but we’ll look to him to be in the middle of the lineup. He’s a guy that will bring a physical presence to the lineup.”
Cooper Johnson was one of the Rebels’ highest rated draft prospects, and the Cincinnati Reds picked him in last summer’s MLB Draft; however, the Illinois native had his sights set on Oxford and playing in the greatest atmosphere in college baseball. Dillard, a High School All-American like Johnson, knows all about the Swayze Field environment as one of four Oxford natives who will stay in town for college (Kessinger, Jason Barber, Houston Roth).
“Even though on paper we look quite young, I think when we run out on the field a lot of the names will be recognizable to the fans,” noted Bianco. “We’re as excited as we’ve been in a long time.”
Once again, Ole Miss faces a daunting 2017 slate. The schedule is highlighted by 26 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last summer, including 20 games versus opponents with an RPI in the top 25 at the end of the 2016 season. Although 46 percent of the schedule consists of NCAA Tournament teams, Ole Miss will host the majority of them at venerable Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field. The 32-game home slate features 15 contests versus opponents that qualified for the 2016 NCAA Tournament, including three-game series versus East Carolina (Feb. 17-19), UNCW (Feb. 24-26), Vanderbilt (March 17-19), Mississippi State (March 31-April 2) and Texas A&M (May 12-14).
The Rebels will hit the road for the first time in 2017 when they travel to the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic (March 3-5). A prominent weekend of college baseball at Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, begins with Ole Miss facing Baylor Friday afternoon. The Rebels will battle Texas Tech on Saturday before concluding the tournament with a showdown against preseason No. 1 TCU Sunday.
“It’s one of those things that everybody’s looking forward to,” Bianco said regarding his team playing in the prestigious tournament. “For one, there’s great competition. We’re going to play three really good teams from the Big 12. I think any time that you play teams from other Power 5 conferences, there’s an added excitement. Second, to be playing in a Major League ballpark and in a dome where you know weather is not a factor, that’s super exciting as well.”
The 2017 Road to Omaha begins Feb. 17 when East Carolina, coached by former Ole Miss hitting coach Cliff Godwin, comes to town. With the Rebels ranked No. 8 in Perfect Game’s preseason poll and ECU at No. 6 in Baseball American’s poll, a weekend series between two top-10 teams at Swayze Field will be sure to get Rebel Nation excited for another season of Ole Miss Baseball.