Off The Bat: Ole Miss Freshmen Prove Up To Task

In Off The Bat, Teddy Cahill wraps up the weekend in college baseball and looks ahead.

The Kids Are All Right At Mississippi

Mississippi this fall brought the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class to campus. The 17-man class remained intact through last year’s draft, despite featuring seven players ranked on the 2016 BA 500. It was the first No. 1 recruiting class in both program and school history.

After six Rebels were drafted off last year’s team, coach Mike Bianco knew they would have to lean on the newcomers. But he believed that Mississippi’s returning upperclassmen such as infielders Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles and lefthander David Parkinson would play important roles this spring.

It didn’t take long for the Rebels to show what that combination could produce. Facing then-No. 6 East Carolina, a talented, veteran team, on opening weekend at Swayze Field, Ole Miss started the season with a sweep. The Rebels won a pair of one-run games to start the series and finished the sweep with an 8-6 victory Sunday. This week, they debuted in the rankings at No. 22.

“I’m just really proud of the way we performed,” Bianco said. “Obviously we had great results, but there are a lot more games to be played. You couldn’t really ask for much more.”

Ole Miss’ veterans delivered throughout the weekend. On the mound, Parkinson produced a quality start and won on Opening Day and junior closer Will Stokes earned two saves. At the plate, Bortles and junior Will Golsan both homered.

The freshmen also showed what the fuss was all about. The Rebels started four freshmen in the lineup—outfielder Thomas Dillard, catcher Cooper Johnson, shortstop Grae Kessinger and first baseman Cole Zabowski. Kessinger and Johnson played clean defense up the middle, while Dillard (.500/.600/.750) and Zabowski (.429/.429/.857) were two of the Rebels’ top-three hitters on opening weekend.

“When we ran out there, we looked super young,” Bianco said. “At times we’re starting four freshmen. But they’re really talented freshmen that played well this weekend.”

The Rebels were also buoyed by a great showing from their fans. A record 12,117 fans packed Swayze Field on Opening Day and the impressive crowds continued all weekend. A total of 33,070 fans attended the series, shattering Swayze Field’s record for a three-game series. The previous high was 29,646 fans for the 2009 super regional.

Now that the excitement of opening weekend is over, Bianco knows the Rebels have to get back to work quickly. Ole Miss hosts Arkansas State on Tuesday and UNC Wilmington, which reached a regional final last season, travels to Oxford this weekend. The challenging field at the Shriners’ Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston looms over the horizon in two weeks.

With so many freshmen on the field and more to come (Ole Miss only sparingly used its freshmen pitchers), some growing pains are inevitable this season. But especially encouraging for Bianco was the way his team responded to being challenged this weekend. ECU held a lead in all three games, but every time Ole Miss answered the bell.

“To me, I’m more excited and proud of the way we played,” Bianco said. “That’s a bigger sign for us as a team than anything. The way we played, the way we kept our composure.”

New-look Wright State Upsets Clemson

Wright State’s program has made significant advances in recent years and is coming off back-to-back regional finals appearances. But the core of those teams is largely gone. Five Raiders were drafted last year, including catcher Sean Murphy (third round, Oakland) and righthander Jesse Scholtens (ninth round, Pittsburgh). Coach Greg Lovelady was hired away by Central Florida in the offseason.

So Wright State had several new faces in the lineup and in the dugout last weekend when it travelled to then-No. 10 Clemson. The Raiders were unbowed, however, and upset the Tigers on Opening Day, 6-4. After dropping Saturday’s game, Wright State claimed the series with a 9-2 victory Sunday. As a result, the Raiders entered the Top 25 for the first time ever, debuting at No. 25.

First-year head coach Jeff Mercer, who spent the last three years on Lovelady’s staff, was pleased with the Raiders’ opening-weekend performance.

“It was certainly a great feeling today, but, to be honest, with the way we competed, I wasn’t surprised we were able to go out and compete,” he said. “We’re young, but we’re gifted athletically. When they play well, we can win. When we don’t, when we walk guys, when we make errors, we can lose.”

While Wright State has 10 freshmen on its roster and many other players are stepping into larger roles this season, Mercer said they were ready for the challenge of playing Clemson in Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

“With the kind of guys we have, they play better in that environment,” Mercer said. “I don’t worry about them being scared or intimidated.”

The Raiders were also without ace Caleb Sampen, the 2016 Horizon League freshman of the year. The sophomore righthander will miss the first few weeks of the season due to injury, but his teammates were able to hold Clemson’s powerful offense in check. Seth Beer, the 2016 Freshman of the Year, homered twice and walked six times in the series, but the Tigers were held to total of 12 runs.

Wright State’s offense was led by freshman third baseman Seth Gray, who went 5-for-10 with a home run and five RBIs. Sophomore outfielder J.D. Orr, one of the few returning regulars, went 5-for-14 and drove in four runs.

Mercer credited assistant coaches Alex Sogard and Matt Talarico for helping the young Raiders develop quickly this year.

“Anytime you take a young team into a new environment and compete, to me that’s the mark of really good assistant coaches,” he said.

Wright State will have to be ready to compete again next weekend when it returns to the Palmetto State to take on No. 5 South Carolina. While it is an incredibly challenging stretch to start the season, Mercer said it provides the young Raiders with a crash course in what it takes to play at the highest level.

“One great lesson you learn there is the damage that is done when you make mistakes against good teams,” Mercer said. “Sometimes you don’t necessarily learn those experience until you go play someone that makes you pay for them. Young guys grow up fast like that.”

Oklahoma Starts Strong At Home

Last Sunday, Oklahoma coach Pete Hughes texted Long Beach State coach Troy Buckley a picture of the opening weekend weather forecast for Norman, Okla., and Long Beach, Calif. The two teams were slated to play a series in Long Beach, but a storm was bearing down on the West Coast.

“I said, ‘It looks like playing conditions are going to be great in Norman, Okla.,’” Hughes said. “I just threw it out there. Then we started talking about it on Monday.”

Series throughout Southern California were thrown into disarray by the approaching storm and, by Wednesday, Beach and Oklahoma and moved their series to Oklahoma. Hughes credited director of operations Ryan Gaines for his role in the process, which required quick changes to flights and hotel plans.

While moving the series allowed it to be played without any delays and with good field conditions, it was not ideal for either team. Oklahoma missed out on an opportunity to boost its RPI with a road series and now opens the season with 16 straight home games. Beach already had a punishing road slate with nonconference series at Arizona State, Minnesota and North Carolina.

“We both put our players ahead of everything else,” Hughes said. “We both just wanted to play the games.”

On the field, Oklahoma won the first game, before Beach evened the series the next day. The Sooners claimed the series against the then-No. 20 Dirtbags with a 4-2 victory Sunday.

Hughes said the Sooners had good energy when they got to the park Sunday morning, and carried that over into the series finale.

“Guys understand how important it is to get the season going and get a quality win,” Hughes said. “We’re not as young as we were. These guys have been around it, they’re goal oriented. They were pretty motivated.”

There were plenty of encouraging signs from the Sooners as they try to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 and the first time under Hughes. Their seniors started the season well, as infielders Jack Flansburg and Austin O’Brien, and catcher Renae Martinez were three of their four leading hitters on Opening Weekend. Sophomore righthander Jake Irvin led the pitching staff with an Opening Day gem. He struck out 10 batters and held Beach to one hit in seven scoreless innings.

With the long home stand just starting, Oklahoma now needs to keep its early-season momentum rolling.

“We’ve just got to keep like we did and keep playing at a certain level,” Hughes said. “We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got to clean up a lot of things before we get ready for Big 12 play.

“It was a good weekend to beat really good program and a well-coached team, that’s for sure.”

Eight for Omaha

Cal State Fullerton, East Carolina, Florida, Florida State, Louisiana State, Oregon State, South Carolina, Texas Christian

Seven of these eight teams are the same as the Eight for Omaha I put together following the 2016 College World Series. The lone difference is Cal State Fullerton, which takes the place of Long Beach State. When I put together the initial list, I thought Beach would get righthander Chris Mathewson back for their rotation. Instead, he signed with the Dodgers as a 19th-round pick. Fullerton enters the year as the Big West favorite and has a pitching depth and lineup experience to make a deep tournament run. East Carolina is the lone member of the group to exit opening weekend with a losing record, but that disappointing start should be overcome. The Pirates still have plenty of talent, experience and depth on their roster.


Six people or programs who stood out this weekend.

Bethune-Cookman: The Wildcats opened the season with three wins against Boston College to record their first ever sweep against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. BCU, last year’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament champions, finished the sweep with a 3-2 victory Sunday, and won all three games against BC, a super regional team a year ago, by one run.

Mike Martin, head coach, Florida State: The Seminoles’ 11-3 victory against Virginia Commonwealth on Sunday was Martin’s 1,900th career win. He is in his 38th season as Florida State’s head coach and is the second-winningest coach in Division I history, trailing only Augie Garrido (1,975).

Jared Poche’, lhp, Louisiana State and Robbie Welhaf, rhp, Elon: Poche’ and Welhaf both threw no-hitters Saturday. Welhaf recorded the season’s first no-hitter when he blanked Longwood for nine innings Saturday. Poche’ finished his seven-inning no-hitter soon after, as LSU swept a doubleheader against Army.

Saint Louis: The Billikens swept four games this weekend at the Alamo Irish Classic in San Antonio to claim the event’s title. SLU scored a total of 46 runs on 58 hits in victories against Lafayette, Incarnate Word and Notre Dame (twice), bringing home the hardware.

Ricky Tyler Thomas, lhp, Fresno State: The opening game of Fresno State’s series against Oregon featured a matchup of Thomas and lefthander David Peterson, who spent the summer as teammates pitching for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Thomas and the Bulldogs came out on top, as he struck out nine batters in six innings and held the Ducks to one run on two hits and no walks.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for:

Miami at (3) Florida: The Hurricanes and Gators will renew one of college baseball’s best rivalries this weekend. Florida has won the regular season series in six of the past seven seasons and will be favored again this year, but Miami, led by center fielder Carl Chester and righthander Jesse Lepore, will provide a formidable opponent.

(25) Wright State at (5) South Carolina: The Raiders’ tour of the Palmetto State continues with the Gamecocks. Repeating its success against Clemson won’t be easy for Wright State, especially against South Carolina’s rotation of Clarke Schmidt, Wil Crowe and Adam Hill.

(16) Louisiana-Lafayette at Sam Houston State: The series pits last year’s Sun Belt Conference champion (Louisiana) against last year’s Southland Conference champion (Sam Houston State). The winner of this series will get its 2017 tournament resume off to a strong start.

Two weekend tournaments you shouldn’t miss:

Tony Gwynn Classic: Last season’s inaugural edition of the tournament featured two College World Series teams (Arizona and UC Santa Barbara, the tournament champion) and three more regional teams (Bryant, Nebraska and Tulane). This year’s tournament will be hard-pressed to match that success, but with first-team Preseason All-Americans catcher Riley Adams (San Diego) and outfielder Keston Hiura (UC Irvine) on the field and several intriguing teams in the field, it should be another good tournament.

Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge: Ohio State, 2016 Big Ten Conference Tournament champions, and Utah, 2016 Pac-12 Conference champions, are joined by No. 8 Oregon State and Nebraska in Surprise, Ariz. The teams will play two games against both teams from the opposite conference.

One midweek game to keep an eye on:

Dallas Baptist at Rice, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET: The Patriots, the Missouri Valley Conference favorites, will visit the Owls, the Conference USA favorites, for an early-season showdown. Rice (2-2) is coming off a series split at Texas, while DBU (2-1) won its opening-weekend series against Louisiana-Monroe.

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