Feb. 14, 2012
OXFORD, Miss. -- The Ole Miss baseball team enters the 2012 season with an air of the unknown, but a quiet confidence and excitement that surrounds a recruiting class ranked in the top five in the nation by both Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America, and a preseason ranking in the top 25 for the ninth time under head coach Mike Bianco.
“There’s always a lot of excitement this time of year when you’re looking forward to starting a new season, but I think this team is a little different,” Bianco said. “We have a lot of new faces and an outstanding recruiting class from this past fall, so there will be a lot of players playing on the field for the first time. It’s hard to predict how that will parley into wins and losses, but there is no doubt this is going to be one of the most talented groups to ever come to campus and we’re excited.”
And while there has been buzz about the incoming class for the Rebels, the 2012 season doesn’t look to be one with unfamiliar faces on the field. Ole Miss returns seven starters from the defensive side of the ball and the offensive line-up from a year ago. The Rebels also return several arms on the mound that saw action in 2011.
That combination of newcomers and returning veterans is another point of excitement for Rebel fans and coaches alike as the two groups work to meld into a cohesive unit for the upcoming campaign.
“I’ve always been a believer that you find out what type of chemistry you have during a season when adversity hits,” Bianco said. “But, I will say to this point it’s really been a fun group to work with in the fall when you look at their energy and their passion to play baseball and play together.
“We didn’t have the greatest fall (statistically) maybe, but we had a great fall when it comes to work ethic,” Bianco continued. “The players got after it in the field, the weight room, the classroom and everything they did. We have some young guys to mix in and there is a learning curve. You attack that learning curve differently when you have a lot of teammates pulling for you.”
The energy and camaraderie seen from the 2012 edition of the Diamond Rebs is one that bodes well for the chances of success on the field this spring.
The Rebels return every member of the infield from a year ago and add senior Matt Snyder back to the mix at first base after the big left-hander served as the designated hitter a year ago following injury.
It’s a veteran group of players that includes upperclassmen at first base, second base and shortstop, with a pair of sophomores who saw significant playing time at third and shortstop.
“I definitely think when it comes to a fan and media perspective, we’re more recognizable in the field than we are on the mound,” Bianco said. “There is a lot of experience out on the field. People may look and wonder where all the new guys are, but you’ll see them sprinkled in as the season progresses. There is a lot of competition at each position, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Snyder returns to the field at first base where the 6-foot-6 senior played most of his first two years in Oxford before a dislocated shoulder moved him to the designated hitter spot in 2011. The left-handed hitter led the Rebels in home runs last season, turning in nine home runs and hitting above the .300 mark while driving in a team-leading 39 runs.
Returning to the middle of the infield is junior second baseman and All-SEC selection Alex Yarbrough. The switch hitter was one of two players to start all 55 games last season and paced the Rebel offense in 2011. Yarbrough hit .350 on the year with seven home runs and led the team with a .542 slugging percentage. He also tallied 14 doubles, three triples and drove in 38 runs while scoring a team-leading 49 runs.
Helping anchor the middle infield is senior Blake Newalu who drew the start in 52 games after joining the Rebels last season as a junior college transfer. Newalu led the squad with 12 steals on 13 attempts to help set the tone for the Rebels on the base path.
Returning at third base is sophomore Preston Overbey, an athletic and versatile player who started most of the season at third base but demonstrated the ability to play either corner position on the infield and saw some starts in the outfield as a freshman.
Two other players in the mix out of the gates for the Rebels are sophomore Austin Anderson and junior college transfer Andrew Mistone. Anderson made 21 starts and saw action in 39 games as a freshman last season, playing both positions on the left side of the infield. Mistone had a solid fall for the Rebels and demonstrated proficiency at third base with athletic defense as well as the ability to be a threat offensively.
Behind the plate, the Rebels return a pair of players pressing for playing time as the starting backstop in senior Taylor Hightower and sophomore Will Allen. Both players are pushing to fill the spot left behind by Miles Hamblin who was drafted in the 12th round of the MLB Draft last season by the Houston Astros.
Hightower started 21 games behind the plate for the Rebels a season ago and enters his fourth year under the tutelage of Bianco and assistant coach Carl Lafferty. The senior has hit at almost a .300 clip for his career and has proven to be an adept player on the base path.
Allen made one start behind the plate a year ago, making the bulk of his 28 starts in the infield playing behind the senior Hamblin and the junior Hightower. A standout catcher out of Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Fla., Allen was selected to compete with Team USA and has pushed for the starting role with his performance in fall ball this past off-season.
The Rebels see the most new faces in the outfield in 2012 with the departure of two of three starters from a year ago after seniors Matt Smith and Matt Tracy finished out their careers for the Red and Blue.
Returning for his junior season is Tanner Mathis, a versatile athlete who played center field last season but has the ability to play anywhere in the outfield. Mathis finished second on the team in batting average last season, hitting at a .336 clip and scoring 37 runs with 27 RBI from the lead-off spot. Mathis truly provided a boost to the Rebel offense from the lead-off spot with his unparalleled plate discipline – posting only 10 strikeouts through 216 at bats after starting all 55 games.
“We return both Mathis and Zach Kirksey in the outfield,” Bianco said. “Part of the reason for seeing more opportunities in the outfield is because we did lose two of the three starters. You’ll also see guys like Auston Bousfield, Senquez Golson and Will Jamison out there. There’s been lots of competition at each position and that brings mental toughness. I like the way they competed this fall. All of those guys run well and will be able to do different things for us.”
Competing for playing time in the outfield with the upperclassmen are the three freshmen who bring a bevy of talent and athleticism with them to the field.
Bousfield helped lead his high school team in Florida to four consecutive district championships and was a solid hitter who hovered around the .400 mark for his career. His speed also translated into offense for his squad as he tallied 27 doubles, 11 triples 84 runs scored and 91 RBI for his high school career on his way to All-Region honors from Rawlings.
Golson is the first two-sport athlete for the Rebel baseball squad to push for serious playing time in the outfield since current Major Leaguer Seth Smith suited up for the Rebels from 2002-04. The speedy Golson plays defensive back for the Ole Miss football team and was drafted in the eighth round of the MLB Draft out of high school by the Boston Red Sox.
Jamison, a finalist for Mr. Baseball in the state of Tennessee and an All-State selection, was drafted by the Cleveland Indians out of Cordova High School in the 40th round of the MLB Draft this past summer. He helped lead his high school team to a state championship and turned in an outstanding career with a .406 average to go along with 70 career doubles, 18 triples, 16 home runs and 132 RBI.
The combination of power and athleticism among both the returning players and the newcomers lends to an excitement around the potential offense for the Rebels, especially when combined with the addition of a new hitting coach in Cliff Godwin who joined the staff in the off-season after three years as Associate Head Coach at UCF.
“In general, we have more options this year (when looking at the personnel),” Bianco said. “I think you’ll see a lot more ability to bunt, hit-and-run and really adopt our beliefs when it comes to implementing our offense more fully. I think you’ll see us run more, and we have more options available to us this season.
“Last year we had times with the big guys coming to the plate and a guy on first who couldn’t really run,” Bianco continued. “That left us hoping for the big double or the home run in order to score. This year we expect to have more options available in the lineup.”
The addition of Godwin to the offensive game plan and coaching staff has been a big boost so far, and Bianco expects to see that continue throughout the season.
“Since he has gotten here, he has hit the ground running with a great work ethic and has brought a lot of energy to the program,” Bianco said. “We wanted someone who could work with the hitters, bring a system here that could be successful and bring an air of confidence and toughness to the program as a leader and the man in charge of the offense. He’s done all three with flying colors.
“He has a great rapport with the players. I knew he was the right guy when we hired him, but six months later I continue to be impressed with what he does. An added bonus is what a great recruiter he is and the boost he’s given us in that role over the last six months.”
For the second straight season, the Rebels will send out a revamped weekend rotation – a rarity in college baseball. All three weekend starters for the Rebels were drafted this past season, leaving Ole Miss looking to some talented pitchers to fill new roles in 2012.
“One of the things that’s happened with us over the last year or two is we haven’t had that young pitcher work his way into the starting rotation,” Bianco said. “We haven’t had that Drew Pomeranz, Lance Lynn, Will Kline or Mark Holliman who was able to move into that starting role and come back for another year or two. We have that this year.”
The coaching staff is looking at sophomore right-hander Bobby Wahl, who served as a reliever in his freshman campaign, to be that guy this season.
Wahl worked 30.0 innings last season and posted four saves to go along with 26 strikeouts and only 11 walks as a closer last season. He was named Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week after grabbing the save on back-to-back nights in the weekend series against Kentucky in April.
The right-handed hurler then went to the Cape Cod League over the summer and continued to perform well with a 1.23 ERA as a closer with 38 strikeouts to 11 walks through 22.0 innings of work.
“Bobby was a starter in high school, so there’s no real question about whether he can handle the workload and the innings or mentality,” Bianco said. “The bigger question might have been how he would handle relieving last year. He’ll be the guy who walks out there on Friday night, and I think that will be the difference this year. We’ve been known for running a guy out there on Friday nights who could be dominant, and Bobby will be that guy for us.”
As for the rest of the weekend rotation, the expectation is for senior R.J. Hively and sophomore Mike Mayers to round out the weekend rotation when the season begins. Both right-handers saw action primarily in relief roles last season, but also demonstrated the ability to start games.
Hively saw limited action after battling a sore arm early in the season, but returned to the lineup at the end of the season. He picked up a relief win over Arkansas State in May. Mayers tallied 30.0 innings of work with action in 20 games, including a start. He picked up the win over Austin Peay in his only start.
Some other pitchers who have put themselves into contention for playing time with the Rebels are junior left-hander Tanner Bailey, freshman right-hander Hawtin Buchanan and freshman right-hander Josh Laxer.
“There will certainly be opportunities for others, especially some of the younger pitchers, to be able to pitch in some relief roles and mid-week roles and have some success,” Bianco said. “Hopefully by the end of the year, some of those guys will be ready to be the next freshman to move into the starting role like Wahl and Mayers did.”
Laxer has been mentioned as one who will most likely start the season out of the bullpen and serve as a compliment to junior right-hander Brett Huber. A freshman All-America selection in 2010, Huber is set to anchor the bullpen for Ole Miss after the departure of right-hander Jake Morgan following his graduation in 2011.
“Last year we didn’t have a role defined for Brett, but there is no doubt he will close for us the first weekend we take the field,” Bianco said. “Sometimes having that defined role can really help a player, and last year his role really varied. This year his role is very defined like it was as a freshman when he was so successful.”
The Rebels will once again play one of the more challenging schedules in the nation with 10 series against Southeastern Conference foes to go along with several non-conference contests against perennial NCAA Tournament teams.
“It’s certainly the most challenging schedule we’ve had here in my 12 years,” Bianco said. “We will be challenged right off the bat in that opening weekend but continue to be challenged in the next several weekends heading into conference play.”
Ole Miss jumps right into things with a road contest against preseason No. 10 and recent College World Series participant TCU in the opening weekend. The Rebels’ 2012 slate also features a mid-week series at Louisville and home series against Houston, UNC-Wilmington and Miami (Ohio).
Also on the schedule are two-game sets with Southern Miss, Memphis, Arkansas State and the annual non-conference tilt with Mississippi State in Pearl for the Governor’s Cup.
The Rebels will also play mid-week contests against Murray State, Jackson State, Central Arkansas and Tennessee-Martin.
As a part of the SEC schedule, the Rebels lose their annual contest with South Carolina as a part of the conference rotation but pick up a road series with Vanderbilt in place of the Gamecocks. Ole Miss will play host to Florida, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee and LSU, while going on the road to face the Commodores, Alabama, Mississippi State, Georgia and Kentucky.
“The Southeastern Conference schedule is always exciting and always challenging,” Bianco said. “This year is no different than any other year in that regard. Having Vanderbilt back on the schedule is a nice thing for the fans because that always seems to be a series they enjoy up in Nashville with it being one of the closer opponents for us and the fan base we have up in that area.”
The SEC Tournament schedule also changes for the 2012 season with the league expanding the field to 10 teams in preparation for the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M in 2013. The event will begin on Tuesday this May with the divisional winners receiving a first-round bye.
“I don’t think as far as the way the tournament is run that the fans will really notice much,” Bianco said. “The biggest thing may be the bye on the first day for the divisional winners. After that it is back to the original double-elimination format before narrowing down to the single-elimination at the end. I think it’s a good thing for everyone involved.”