Ole Miss Baseball, all told, had a good year in 2015. Though it ultimately ended in Los Angeles with a 0-2 showing in the NCAA Regional, last year’s Rebs (30-28) were a decent, if frustrating, baseball team. Burdened with a sudden lack of experience and an inability to score runs at crucial times, Ole Miss struggled to match the success of its 2014 run to the College World Series.
Which, it seems, is the new standard that Mike Bianco has set for the program.
After finally breaking through and getting to Omaha two seasons ago, Coach Bianco and his staff have confirmed Rebel Nation’s suspicions that Ole Miss is a CWS-caliber program. The challenge now is to face that expectation year-in, year-out.
And as usual, the diamond Rebs look talented enough to compete in the always-stacked SEC. But do they have all the pieces in place to make a deep postseason run?
The SEC starts the season with four teams in the top ten (#1 Florida, #3 Vanderbilt, #4 Texas A&M, and #7 LSU), and another three (Mississippi State, Arkansas, and South Carolina) are littered throughout various publications’ top 25s. The Rebels missed out on most preseason rankings, presumably due to their lack of proven experience in key areas.
Gone are a trio of quality pitchers (Christian Trent, Jacob Waguespack, and Scott Weathersby), as well as the team’s offensive star, Sikes Orvis. Catcher Austin Knight will also be missed.
But some of last year’s stars are back, starting with closer Wyatt Short. Short showed great stuff last year en route to ten saves and a 1.38 ERA, earning him 2016 Preseason All-American honors. The left side of the infield returns a pair of fan favorites in SS Errol Robinson and 3B Colby Bortles, who will be counted on for much of the production at the plate. Several serviceable returnees (Tate Blackman, Will Golsan, outfielders J.B. Woodman and Cameron Dishon, and others) look to build on last year’s experience. And starter Brady Bramlett will take the mound on Friday nights, looking to improve on last year’s 7-4 campaign.
So it’s not as if the Rebs are a complete mystery heading into the season. But how successfully can some of Ole Miss’ new talent be plugged into key gaps in the roster? Highly-touted JUCO transfer Chad Smith looks ready to take over the Saturday starter spot after sitting out 2015 due to injury. Can new pitchers David Parkinson and James McArthur compete for the oft-troubled Sunday starting spot?
One thing is certain: you can’t win games if you can’t drive in runs. Can one (or several) of the returning Rebels take the reins behind the plate? Runners stranded in scoring position feels like a hallmark of Ole Miss Baseball over the past few seasons, and this is a recipe for disappointment. Look for Bortles and Woodman to step up their production in the middle of the lineup – they’ll need to, if the Rebs want to compensate for the absence of Sikes Orvis.
Of course, Ole Miss should be competitive and dangerous in any series on the schedule; Mike Bianco has proven this much over the course of his tenure. Andy Kennedy’s faced a similar dilemma with the basketball program in recent years, actually: not just any postseason appearance will do. After giving fans a brush with a legit shot at a national title, high expectations can be hard to quell. The pieces are in place to make a run, but the question marks are present and the competition is stiff.