February 15, 2020. The Rebels had just dropped their season opener to No.1 Louisville in front of ten thousand fans at Swayze Field. In twenty years, a Mike Bianco–coached Ole Miss team had only lost a season opener once. A heartbreaking 7-2 loss was slowly escalating into the strong possibility of an 0-3 start.
Then it began. One game at a time, the baseball team constructed a winning streak that has reached twenty games as of Wednesday, February 24. The COVID-19–canceled season of 2020 ended on March 11 with the Rebels having won sixteen in a row.
Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Mississippi State all opened their 2021 season at the State Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas. Each SEC team played Texas, TCU, and Texas Tech with all teams ranking in the top ten of most preseason polls.
The Rebels crushed the Big 12 opposition, winning all three games behind a competitive bullpen that worked its way out of several jams over the weekend. A 7-3 win over TCU, a 5-4 victory over Texas Tech, and an 8-1 dismantling of Texas enabled Ole Miss to claim the top spot in all the major NCAA baseball polls.
“You have to be careful as a coach, what you say and how you react,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said. “But to me, you can’t say in one breath that it doesn’t matter and then come out and give a speech about it. At the end of the day, the polls are there and it’s nice to be recognized. Anybody that says different is lying to you.”
The No. 1 ranking is the first in school history. Ole Miss did climb as high as No. 2 in 2018 after winning the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Alabama.
In Arlington, Ole Miss used three different starting lineups to defeat the Big 12’s best. Then ranked No. 10 TCU fell to the Rebels 7-3 in the opening game. Senior designated hitter Ben Van Cleave went 2-for-3 with two runs batted in and a stand-up double. Breaking out of his shell was sophomore Peyton Chatagnier, who had three runs batted in from two hits.
Chatagnier continued his clinic over the weekend, producing a .455 batting average with four doubles, three RBIs, and three runs scored. The performance earned him SEC Player of the Week honors.
The pitching and defense paved the way for several get out of jams, including a nail-biting performance against Texas Tech in the top of the ninth where junior Braden Forsyth got the last out needed with the bases loaded. Ole Miss won that game, 5-4.
As a unit, the staff on the mound held strong with a .266 ERA, giving up 19 hits and striking out 42 batters over the weekend. Starters compiled a better than average weekend with Derek Diamond leading the way. Diamond gave up one run on four hits in six innings of work against the Longhorns. He struck out eight batters and walked just one.
The TCU game saw senior Taylor Broadway come out of the pen to pitch four innings where he allowed just one run while striking out five. Against then No.3 Texas Tech, junior Gunnar Hoglund started and pitched 5.1 innings of work with 11 strikeouts.
With a pitching staff that has found its identity and a balanced offensive power at the plate, this may be one of the best teams Bianco has fielded during his twenty-one-year career at Ole Miss.
The Rebels have returned from their sweep of the Lone Star State and will settle in for thirteen games at home including three weekend series against Central Florida, Belmont, and Louisiana Monroe.
As with all other sports at Ole Miss, there will be COVID-19 restrictions put in place vis a baseball attendance plan. The right field student section will be general admission with seating restricted to preset groups of two and four, according to Ole Miss Media Relations. Student tickets will be $5 each and will go on sale the Monday prior to each home game week at students.olemisstix.com.