By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Mike Bianco won’t really know what he has in the outfield until he sees his three new starters play some games. But sometimes, you just know.
“Not many people who watch Tim Ferguson play will realize he never played the outfield before September,” the Ole Miss baseball coach says.
A life-long infielder, Ferguson will start in center, the most challenging outfield position, when defending SEC co-champion Ole Miss begins the season on Friday at 3 p.m. against Louisiana-Monroe.
In preseason polls the Rebels, 44-20 a year ago, are ranked No. 24 by Baseball America, No. 21 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 17 by USA Today.
Two-thirds of the Ole Miss outfield will be converted infielders, as first baseman Matt Smith takes over in right field.
The third starter will be a true freshman, Tanner Mathis.
Newness for the Rebels doesn’t stop in the outfield. There’s a preseason All-American on the mound in junior left-hander Drew Pomeranz, but as the Friday night starter he’ll only play once a week. There’s no measurable SEC experience behind him.
A winter competition to fill the other two rotation spots was won, for now, by senior Aaron Barrett, who struggled as a first-year junior college transfer last season, and junior college transfer Trent Rothlin. Both are right-handers.
Five of the top six pitchers from last year are gone by either attrition or injury.
“It was an unusual fall for us. This team has already had adversity, has had to jump some hurdles, has had some tests and has passed with flying colors,” Bianco said.
The “unusual fall” includes a December staff change with the sudden resignation of assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Rob Reinstetle, citing personal reasons.
In addition, freshmen Evan Frazar and Zach Lowery were released before the start of January practice.
But wait, there’s more. There’s been a number of health concerns ranging from mononucleosis for Rothlin, to a torn meniscus for Mathis to surgery to remove an appendix redshirt freshman Mike Snyder, who is expected to be in the mix at third base and hit for power in the middle of the order.
Playing their way in
In the fall Bianco saw enough of Mathis, a swift, sure-handed defender and capable bat-handler, to put him in the lineup.
He saw enough of Rothlin in recent weeks to hand him the ball as this weekend’s Game 3 starter.
Bianco says arm angles and movement on his pitches make Rothlin, who pitched at Clemson two years ago before transferring to junior college, tough to hit.
“His ball goes everywhere,” said senior infielder Zach Miller, who further assessed the Rebels’ unknown pitchers this way: “Monroe will struggle with them this weekend.”
It took most of winter practice to set the rotation. There was far less guess work involved in moving veteran players to the outfield, Bianco said.
“At that position you can know. The way those two handled it, it was just tremendous,” he said.
If Pomeranz is tremendous most Friday nights as he was in postseason – when pitching on short rest turned in stellar performances in the Oxford Regional championship game against Western Kentucky and in the super regional against Virginia – then Ole Miss can set a positive tone to begin weekly SEC series.
Pomeranz asserted himself down the stretch, getting two of his eight wins in the regional when he pitched 17 innings, including a complete-game 16-strikeout performance to help the Rebels advance.
“We’re going to need more than eight wins from him. He’s one of the best competitors we’ve ever had here,” Bianco said. “He was Superman last June.”