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Ole Miss Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022

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(Photo courtesy of Mississippi)

Mississippi rode quite a roller coaster during the 2021 season. All of the following are true: the Rebels rose to No. 1 after the first week of the season, immediately lost that spot after losing a series to Central Florida at home, got off to a 6-0 start in SEC play, lost four consecutive conference series immediately after the 6-0 start, lost starting pitcher Gunnar Hoglund and slugger Tim Elko to injury midway through the season and made a late push, spurred in part by Elko’s return to a part-time role on a still-injured knee, to host (and win) a regional in Oxford.

Much to the disappointment of Ole Miss and its fans, that roller coaster ended with the team finishing where it often has, with an elimination in super regionals. The 2022 team will go into the season with high expectations once again, given the talent on hand. These are five questions the Rebels will work to answer as they look to get back to Omaha for the first time since 2014.

Who will replace Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund in the rotation?

This is the single biggest question the Rebels have to answer in 2022. It’s not just that Nikhazy and Hoglund made up two-thirds of the weekend rotation over the better part of the last three seasons. They were also two of the best pitchers in college baseball.

Replacing that pair was always going to be difficult. There was no scenario where Ole Miss would go into 2022 feeling as confident about its rotation options as it would if those two were returning, but with that said, there are some experienced candidates for the spots Nikhazy and Hoglund vacated.

The first is third-year sophomore righthander Derek Diamond. A highly-touted recruit in the 2019 class, he has been the Sunday starter for much of the last two seasons. He yo-yoed in and out of the rotation last season, eventually putting up a 5.26 ERA that ballooned to 6.08 in 10 SEC games, seven of which were starts. He has good stuff, including a fastball that was up to 97 mph last season, and as much starting experience at this level as anyone on the roster. 

Another obvious candidate is third-year sophomore righthander Drew McDaniel. He also came in and out of the rotation at times last season. He finished with a 6.08 ERA overall and a 7.82 ERA in SEC games, including seven starts. He has good stuff of his own. His fastball was up to 95 mph last season and he has two distinct breaking balls, both of which had 35% or higher whiff rates a season ago.

Diamond and McDaniel are similar in that they arrived on campus in the same class, they have roughly the same experience in the program, they were both in the rotation last season for long stretches and they both have the stuff to be effective SEC starters. According to coach Mike Bianco, they are also similar in terms of the next steps needed in order to actually become effective SEC starters.

“I think for both of those guys to take the next step is can they deliver the pitch at the right time? Because, you know, if you watched us up close, those guys at times were as good as anybody we had in the rotation,” Bianco said. “They just weren’t consistently that week-in, week-out like a Nikhazy or a Hoglund. The difference between Hoglund and Nikhazy are those guys, more times than not, made that big pitch to get off the field. You know, strike the guy out or get that big out with a runner at second and third and two outs and the crowd gets to its feet and they come yelling off the field. We need more moments out of Diamond and McDaniel, more moments like that, making the big pitch and getting off the field.”

Among returners, two other pitchers stand out as being in the mix.

Sophomore righthander Jack Dougherty was supposed to redshirt last season, but due to the depth issues Ole Miss ended up facing on the mound, the coaching staff pulled the redshirt off of him in mid April. He had a 5.40 ERA in 25 innings, mostly in relief, but his numbers actually got better in SEC play, as he had a 4.09 ERA in 11 conference innings. His best outing came on May 1, when he had 3.2 hitless innings against South Carolina.

Fourth-year junior righthander Brandon Johnson is more of a wild card in the competition after he served as a short reliever last season, putting up a 4.91 ERA in 22 innings spread across 18 appearances. With a fastball that averaged over 94 mph last season, he has a power repertoire, which is also precisely what will continue to make him a good fit in a relief role.

What are the expectations for transfers Jack Washburn and John Gaddis?

While we’re on the topic of candidates for the weekend rotation, it seems like a good time to bring up two transfers that could be in the mix, righthander Jack Washburn from Oregon State and lefthander John Gaddis from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Washburn, a third-year sophomore, had a 3.12 ERA and held opponents to a .186 batting average in 34.2 innings last season at Oregon State, mostly in relief, and spent the summer pitching for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.

His combination of a low-90s fastball that touched as high as 96 mph and a low-80s slider was devastating at times for the Beavers, and Bianco came away impressed with him very early on in the fall.

Gaddis, a fifth-year senior, provides a bit of a different look. He doesn’t have quite the same level of high-octane stuff as Washburn, as his fastball averaged a tick under 88 mph last season, but he gets swings and misses on both his curveball and changeup, and most importantly, he simply has a long track record of getting outs.

In 138.1 career innings for the Islanders, he had a 3.06 ERA, with his best year coming in 2021, when he had a 2.25 ERA, 72 strikeouts and a .186 opponent batting average in 64 innings. His addition feels somewhat similar to Arkansas’ addition of Houston transfer Lael Lockhart before last season, as both were moving up to the SEC after very successful four-year careers pitching with less than elite stuff. Lockhart sometimes found himself a bit outmanned against good SEC lineups, but he emerged as one of the most dependable arms the Razorbacks had in the end, and Ole Miss would likely be very satisfied if Gaddis followed his path.

Where is Tim Elko in his recovery from injury?

What Elko did last season was nothing short of amazing. When he tore his ACL on April 5 against North Alabama, it was easy to assume his season was over. But after consulting with a number of different doctors, Elko decided to work his way back instead of shutting it down.

He returned on May 1, and although he was limited to pinch-hit and DH opportunities from that point forward, he hit seven home runs down the stretch and became someone that opposing pitching staffs had to gameplan for again.

The flip side of that decision, as beneficial as it was, is that it delayed Elko’s surgery and recovery. He’s not a full participant in the fall, but expectations are that it won’t delay his preparation for the 2022 season once the calendar flips.

“He’s moving along and progressing and hitting all the marks through his rehab protocols that he’s supposed to,” Bianco said. “Knock on wood, (he) should be full go come January.”

At full health, Elko will immediately be one of the best offensive threats in the SEC, with a chance to be an SEC player of the year-type player. Last year, he was on that kind of pace before the injury, and even after the injury, many of his counting stats still ranked among the league’s best.

A monster fifth season in Oxford would be the perfect capper on an eventful career for Elko.

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Is this the best lineup Mike Bianco has had at Ole Miss?

Simply put, Bianco himself thinks it’s possible.

“Will it be one of the best offenses we’ve ever had? Maybe,” he said. “It’s off to a pretty good start when you look at the personnel.”

Elko will obviously be a catalyst, but so will sophomore shortstop Jacob Gonzalez, who stepped right into the lineup last season as a freshman and hit .355/.443/.561 with 16 doubles, 12 homers and more walks (38) than strikeouts (34), all while handling the most demanding position on the infield. He’s another player to put on any list of potential players of the year in the conference.

“I think the easy answer is he’s just a tremendous baseball player,” Bianco said of what allowed Gonzalez to succeed so quickly. “But I think what you’re really getting at is there’s a lot of good baseball players that when they show up to college, they’re not great immediately. And in this office, we wish we knew that answer. We wish we knew what made guys excel immediately and delayed other guys from being great that you thought coming in that they would be great players. But I don’t think there was a doubt when Jacob stepped on campus.”

Fourth-year junior Kevin Graham, who played left field last season, will also be a source of power alongside Elko and Gonzalez after he hit .342/.422/.562 with 14 home runs in 2021.

In all, the Ole Miss lineup last season hit 85 home runs, and with everybody back again in 2022, it’s safe to assume there will be plenty of celebratory beer showers at Swayze Field again. But there are ways in which the lineup can be even more dynamic than it was last season.

Specifically, Bianco would like to cut down on strikeouts, which is a fairly common theme in this day and age in baseball, and make more things happen on the bases.

“Can we be a little more, I don’t know if athletic is the right word, but produce more on the bases,” Bianco said. “We like to be aggressive, but can we steal a few more bases with guys like (T.J.) McCants and (Justin) Bench and others throughout the lineup? Last year was a team that stole 44 bases. We hit a lot of homers, we hit 85 or so home runs, but some of our better offenses stole a few more bases. You don’t have to have a bunch of 5-10, 185-pound guys to steal bases. Some of that just comes with maturity and returning guys that have confidence, that will go when they’re supposed to.”

McCants, a sophomore who mostly played center field a year ago, hit .300/.369/.433 with 11 stolen bases, good for second on the team. Bench, a fourth-year junior who also saw time at a few different positions but primarily played third base, hit .307/.423/.440 with 14 steals, tops on the team.

Those two give the lineup enviable depth, alongside fifth-year senior outfielder Hayden Leatherwood (.285/.348/.441), third-year sophomore catcher Hayden Dunhurst (.280/.385/.435), who doubles as a solid defensive catcher, and third-year sophomore second baseman Peyton Chatagnier (.271/.368/.412), who could be better in 2022 just by virtue of being healthier than he was in 2021, when he battled a hamstring injury.

Whether it’s the best lineup in the Mike Bianco era at Ole Miss remains to be seen, but it’s going to be very good in any event.

Who is ready to step up in a crowded lineup?

On paper, barring injury, there won’t be very many extra at-bats laying around for players who weren’t already regulars in this lineup, and that makes it hard for new breakout stars to emerge. But baseball games aren’t played on paper, and injuries and slumps will almost inevitably force someone else to step up.

One candidate is junior college transfer Reagan Burford, who Bianco thinks can fit into a bit of a Justin Bench mold as someone who can end up collecting a lot of playing time by being someone who can produce offensively and play a bunch of different positions defensively.

Another is sophomore Kemp Alderman, a player who, like Dougherty, had his redshirt taken off part of the way through the season. He hit a home run against Louisiana State in just his third game of the season, but that ended up being his last hit of the year as he finished the season 2-for-16. He has big-time power that could help him force his way into the lineup.

Junior college transfer Banks Tolley could also elbow his way into some playing time. He’s a true center fielder with the speed to match, and he has some pop in his bat. Freshman Tim Simay is a shortstop who will be behind Gonzalez on the depth chart this season, but can play anywhere on the infield.

Of course, any of those guys being true centerpieces in the lineup for Ole Miss in 2022 is a real “break glass in case of emergency” situation for a team that brings back so much from a productive offense from last season.

“There’s younger guys that can continue to improve and find a bigger role, a bigger niche, but I think it’s crazy to think that the mainstays that made their mark last year, guys like Gonzalez and Bench and Elko and Graham and Dunhurst and those guys aren’t going to continue to drive the ship,” Bianco said.

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