Mississippi Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021

Image credit: Ole Miss lefthander Doug Nikhazy (Courtesy of Ole Miss)

Mississippi had one of the most impressive starts to the 2020 season of any team in the country, running off a 16-game winning streak after losing on Opening Day. Its hot start included a series win against Louisville and a perfect weekend in East Carolina’s LeClair Classic and sent it soaring in the rankings.

The Rebels get the bulk of that team back, including their whole rotation, and could enter 2021 as the SEC West favorites. But they still have important questions to answer and holes to fill going into the new year.

As Ole Miss looks to the spring, here are five questions it faced this fall.

Who will take over on the left side of the infield?

Ole Miss’ two biggest losses from its 2020 team were shortstop Anthony Servideo and third baseman Tyler Keenan, who were both drafted in June. That left the left side of the infield wide open this fall for competition.

Coming out of fall ball, the Rebels think they’ve found some answers. Fourth-year junior Tim Elko is set to move to third base after mostly playing the outfield the last two seasons and freshman Jacob Gonzalez showed that he’s ready to take over at shortstop.

Elko was having a breakout season in 2020, having established himself as a regular in right field. He hit .354/.373/.667 with three home runs—all career highs. Now, he’ll return to third base where he started 11 times as a freshman in 2018.

Coach Mike Bianco noted Elko’s breakout has lasted longer than just the abbreviated 2020 spring season. He also had back-to-back strong summers in the Northwoods League and fall ball “seasons.” While those happened a little bit more under the radar, they represent a larger positive trendline for Elko.

“Our fans haven’t seen it as much because of when its happened, but he’s had a good couple of years,” Bianco said.

Gonzalez was part of Ole Miss’ 21st-ranked recruiting class and ranked No. 299 on the 2020 BA 500, which includes all draft-eligible players. He impressed this fall both at the plate, where he led the team in hitting, and defensively, recording the least errors of any infielder.

Scouts had some questions about Gonzalez defensively before the draft and there was uncertainty about where he would fit best defensively. But he did his best this fall to show he can handle shortstop.

“Initially, we weren’t sure where he’d play, but he’s really impressed us,” Bianco said. “There’s a good chance he hits top third of our lineup and plays shortstop.”

Ole Miss has options beyond Elko and Gonzalez. Third-year sophomore Justin Bench can play anywhere on the infield and freshman TJ McCants has the raw tools and athleticism to play up the middle. So, even after losing two standouts on the left side of the infield, Ole Miss is well positioned for 2021.

How will Ole Miss account for losing its top two hitters?

Keenan and Servideo not only locked down the left side of the infield, they were the Rebels two best hitters. Keenan hit .403/.488/.791 with seven home runs, while Servideo hit .390/.575/.695 with five home runs and nine stolen bases.

For nearly every team in the country, losing a pair of hitters who combined for 12 home runs in 2020 would mean having to replace most of the power in their lineup. But Ole Miss led the nation with 37 home runs and again figures to have power threats throughout the lineup.

Catcher Hayden Dunhurst hit five home runs as a true freshman and classmate Peyton Chatagnier hit four. First baseman Cael Baker, a junior college transfer, also hit four and four other players hit multiple home runs.

So, there will be no power outage in Oxford. What may be a bit tougher to replace is Servideo’s speed. His nine stolen bases ranked second in the SEC and brought dynamism to the top of the order.

But, again, Ole Miss has players who can step up. Jerrion Ealy this fall has rushed for 701 yards as a running back on the football team and showed off his speed on the diamond as a true freshman, stealing five bases. Fellow football player/outfielder John Rhys Plumlee also has plus speed and Bench, Chatagnier and Elko swiped three bases apiece in 2020.

With that group, plus outfielder Hayden Leatherwood (.361/.477/.639, 3 HR), all returning and some key newcomers sprinkled in, Ole Miss should again have a deep, dynamic lineup capable of scoring runs in several different ways.

What’s next for the Rebels’ rotation?

Ole Miss returns its rotation of lefthander Doug Nikhazy and righthanders Derek Diamond and Gunnar Hoglund. It’s a rotation that is among the best in the country and a big part of the reason why there is so much optimism about the Rebels in 2021. So, how is that trio looking after fall ball?

Hoglund and Nikhazy, both third-year sophomores, impressed and are in the mix to be drafted in the top three rounds. Hoglund is regarded as the better pure prospect of the two and took some strides forward this fall. His fastball velocity ticked up, averaging better than 92 mph. His slider, which has been a point of emphasis for him over the last year, improved, as did his changeup.

Nikhazy has been one of the Rebels’ best starters throughout his career and started on Opening Day last spring. He again was solid this fall, showing a fastball that averaged better than 90 mph and an improved slider to go with his typically solid changeup and curveball.

Diamond was held out much of the summer due to an injury he suffered in the Northwoods League this summer. While it turned out to just be a sore arm, Ole Miss was cautious with the second-year freshman and limited him to just some live bullpens at the end of the fall. Bianco said Diamond looked good in those sessions, running his fastball up to 93-94 mph.

Overall, it was an encouraging fall for the Rebels’ rotation. If it carries that performance into the spring, it’ll be difficult for opposing hitters to manage.

Who will step up in the bullpen?

The rotation deservedly garners a lot of attention, but the Rebels’ bullpen should not be overlooked. The group helped Ole Miss post a 2.92 ERA in the spring and will again be leaned on in 2021.

There will again be plenty of depth in the bullpen for the Rebels. Closer Braden Forsyth is returning after saving five games in his first season in Oxford after transferring from junior college. So too are Taylor Broadway (2-0, 0.56), Max Cioffi (0-0, 0.00) and Austin Miller (2-0, 2.08), who all made at least six appearances.

Bianco said Broadway, now a fifth-year senior, has been even better this fall.

“His stuff continues to get better and better,” Bianco said. “I think he would have been a big piece out of the bullpen for us last year. He was the most dominant pitcher outside of those three starters.”

Bianco is also encouraged by the progress of second-year freshman Wes Burton, who showed promise in the spring, and fifth-year senior Greer Holston, who has scuffled the last two seasons. Add in promising newcomers like freshmen righthanders Cody Adcock and Cole Baker, and junior college transfer Brandon Johnson, and the Rebels should have plenty of depth on the pitching staff.

What will Ole Miss’ football/baseball duo provide this spring?

Understandably, one of the biggest questions about the Rebels going into 2021 involves a pair of players who have spent the fall practicing with their football teammates and not their baseball teammates.

Ealy and Plumlee came to Ole Miss a year ago with upside both on the gridiron and diamond, but due to the abbreviated spring season have had much more opportunity to show it in football than baseball. Ealy hit .182/.321/.273 with five stolen bases in 13 games (six starts) in the spring, while Plumlee hit .063/.111/.063 with a stolen base in 13 games (two starts).

Ealy has impressed this fall, running for 701 yards and nine touchdowns in eight games. He’s added 14 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown. Plumlee last year took over as the starting quarterback as a true freshman, but this year under first-year coach Lane Kiffin he lost the job to Matt Corral and has served as the backup.

The duo will be back on the diamond in the spring and in the outfield mix. As Ealy and Plumlee did last year, they have come to the baseball facility in their free time to hit. It’s impossible to know how they will react in the spring after not getting as many baseball reps as their teammates, but both have the ability to make a big impact for the Rebels.

For Ealy, the spring is especially important. MLB’s decision to push the draft back a month to coincide with all-star weekend in July made him eligible for the 2021 draft. For a two-sport athlete who could play professionally in either sport, that could force him to make an earlier than expected decision about his long-term future.

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