Alex Yarbrough arrived at the park last Saturday thinking he was getting ready for another day at second base.
After all, it’s the position at which he’d started the 50 previous games this season. Routine is comfortable, but for Yarbrough – and most of the rest of the Ole Miss infield – it was about to change.
“It was a little bit of a surprise to us. I don’t think any of us really expected it coming to the park, but we all know that coach has been doing this a lot longer than us,” said Yarbrough, a sophomore. “He has the best idea about what’s best for the team. We’re all confident in that.”
The Rebels’ new-look defense will make their second SEC start in different roles when Ole Miss (29-23, 12-15 SEC) takes on Arkansas (34-17, 13-14 SEC) tonight at 6:35 at the Razorbacks’ Baum Stadium. Game 2 is Friday at 6:35, Game 3 on Saturday at 2:05.
Anything less than two wins will keep the Rebels, now ninth in the SEC overall standings, from qualifying for the conference tournament and make them a long shot for the NCAA tournament.
The Rebels had already committed five errors in the first two games of the MSU series before Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco moved Yarbrough to third base, freshman Austin Anderson from third to short and short stop Blake Newalu from short to second.
Anderson was a shortstop in high school, but Newalu and Yarbrough had very little experience at their new positions at previous levels of play.
“I was probably 13 or 14 the last time I played (second base) a whole year. It’s different,” Newalu said.
But different is what Bianco was aiming for. The status quo had seen the Rebels struggle to make plays. Their .969 fielding percentage ranks ninth in the SEC and drops a little lower – to .964 and a No. 10 ranking – in conference games.
“I just don’t think we’ve played the field well enough and with enough confidence,” Bianco said. “I just don’t think we’re making plays that we need to make. There comes a point where you have to try and change something.”
Part of the change has been moving freshman Preston Overbey, who began the season at third base, into left field to help in the absence of Matt Smith.
Smith, the Rebels’ captain and fifth-year senior, was 4 for 4 on Tuesday night against Southeast Missouri State, his first game back after a 12-day layoff following surgery on his hand. He lifted his average to .333 and drove in three runs to give him 30 RBIs for the year.
He will be in his familiar right field spot tonight.
The Rebels committed three errors Tuesday – an error by each by Yarbrough, Newalu and Anderson.
While Ole Miss has had problems defensively, Arkansas has had more.
The Razorbacks are last in the SEC in overall games with a .967 fielding percentage. They’re slightly better against the league, .963 for the 11th spot.
“When you have a position change you don’t have time to feel uncomfortable. It’s about being in the moment,” Newalu said. “We understand it’s about the team and what’s best for the team. So we kind of got together and went over the plays, made sure we all knew what to do, because it was new to all of us.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal