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Ole Miss Baseball: 2016 Season Preview

Colby Bortles  Photo by Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics
Colby Bortles
Photo by Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

After reaching the pinnacle of collegiate baseball and finishing third in the College World Series in 2014, the 2015 Ole Miss baseball team took the field without a plethora of the veterans that led them to Omaha. Despite a lineup with little experience, the Rebels continued the program’s tradition of excellence by making an NCAA Regional for the 20th time in their history.

Facing the hardest schedule in the country, the Rebels won 30 games for the 18th-consecutive season and earned an NCAA Tournament berth for the 13th time in the last 15 seasons. Ole Miss played 24 percent of their games against top-10 teams in 2015, including winning series over Florida (CWS third place) and at Vanderbilt (CWS runner-up) during times when the teams were ranked No. 1 in the nation.

“At times we could be really good and play with anybody in the country and sometimes we weren’t as good,” said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, the winningest coach in program history who enters his 16th season leading the Rebels. “I think that was a learning experience for all of the guys that return.”

The Rebels return 16 players from last season’s team, including seven starting position players (DH included). First or second-year players took 70.9 percent of the team’s at-bats throughout the 2015 season, and nearly all of them are back for the 2016 campaign. Ole Miss also welcomes 16 newcomers, featuring 13 freshmen and three junior college transfers.

“This is a better team physically than the one we had last year. All of the returners are a year older and more experienced,” noted Bianco. “Add in this year’s recruiting class and I see a more talented team.”

One of the young Rebels that was relied upon as a leader in 2015 was Errol Robinson, a fan favorite who is back for his third year as the Rebels’ starting shortstop. After batting .297 and leading Ole Miss with 62 hits during the collegiate season, Robinson had one of the best summers in the competitive Cape Cod Baseball League, hitting at a .312 clip to earn a nod into the league’s all-star game. The shortstop recorded a team-high 44 hits during the season to lead the Harbor Hawks to the CCBL championship series. He also paced the team with 25 runs scored as well as 15 stolen bases, which was the second-most in the entire league. High expectations have been placed on Robinson as Baseball America and D1Baseball.com named him a preseason first team All-America honoree.

Five other position starters return for the Rebels, including all three outfielders: seniors Connor Cloyd and Cameron Dishon as well as junior J.B. Woodman. Third baseman Colby Bortles is back at the hot corner and will provide power in the middle of the Ole Miss lineup. The Oviedo, Florida native belted 11 doubles and seven home runs to go along with 47 RBI in 2015. After a superb freshman season in which he hit .290, Will Golsan will look to build off his debut season. Tate Blackman and Kyle Watson combined for 74 starts a season ago, and the pair of sophomores have a chance to crack the lineup once again.

The only voids left in the field are at first base and behind the plate. Ole Miss lost one of the top sluggers in program history, first baseman Sikes Orvis, to graduation and the MLB Draft; the powerful lefty paced the Rebels with 16 home runs, 41 runs and 53 RBI last season. While Orvis was known for his bat, Ole Miss may add some versatility at first base this season. Golsan, who made most of his starts at second base in 2015, is the favorite to start at first on opening day.

“One of the things taken out of fall is moving Will Golsan to first base, but I think throughout the season you’ll see him playing some different positions as well,” said Bianco. “You could see Bortles, Michael Fitzsimmons and Ryan Olenek at first base as well, but coming out of fall, Will has to be in the lineup with his bat. With him at first base, it gives us a more athletic guy that can cover some ground.”

Austin Knight also earned his Ole Miss degree, meaning the Rebels are searching for a new starting catcher this season. Henri Lartigue and Nic Perkins return at the position, while freshmen Nick Fortes and Carson Klepzig add depth behind the dish.

“I thought Henri Lartigue had a monster fall for us,” noted Bianco. “From both sides of the plate, he really swung the bat well. He threw the ball well too, and I think it looks like he’s coming into his own going into his junior year.”

With so many position starters back in Oxford, the biggest question mark heading into the season is on the mound. Ole Miss lost nine pitchers from last year’s squad, including the trio of Christian Trent, Jacob Waguespack and Scott Weathersby. Trent and Weathersby combined for 11 wins, while Waguespack made a team-high 25 appearances out of the bullpen. All three are now playing professionally.

“On the mound is where we’re really new. Although we return Brady (Bramlett), Wyatt (Short) and (Will) Stokes, guys that have had a lot of success in the program, I think the question mark most fans and people have when they look at our team, that’s the unknown,” said Bianco.

Last year, Bramlett made all 15 of his starts in the weekend rotation, bouncing back from a torn labrum that caused him to miss the entire 2014 campaign. He posted a 7-4 record with a 3.74 ERA over 84.1 innings. Bramlett’s invisible fastball helped him strike out a team-high 83 hitters throughout the season. Despite being drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 2015 MLB Draft, the right hander decided to return to school to lead the Rebels on the mound.

Ole Miss returns the leader of the back end of the bullpen in junior Wyatt Short. The southpaw was nearly unhittable a season ago, posting a 1.38 ERA and 44 strikeouts over 39.0 innings. The sensational sophomore season earned Short second team All-SEC accolades.

Senior Matt Denny and sophomore Will Stokes join Bramlett and Short as the returners on the mound, but the Rebels will also get two guys back from Tommy John surgery. Redshirt junior Sean Johnson, who arrived on campus as a projected weekend starter, pitched one inning before being shut down for the rest of the season. He and redshirt freshman Brady Feiglhad strong falls in rehab outings as the duo looks to make an impact in 2016.

Despite losing multiple veterans on the staff, Ole Miss added pitching depth in its 2015 recruiting class. Out of the 16 newcomers, 13 of them are pitchers. Junior Chad Smith and freshman Andy Pagnozzi heard their names called in the 2015 MLB Draft but decided to continue their careers at Ole Miss. Bianco sees both guys, along with a variety of new arms, making an impact this season.

“As far as new guys, look for Chad Smith, a junior college transfer, to be one of the SEC starters. Some other guys that I think are in the mix to be weekend starters are David Parkinson and Brian Browning, two more junior college transfers that are lefties,” explained Bianco. “James McArthur, a true freshman from Texas, had a great fall for us. He’s a super athlete and a guy that will have an impact on the staff as a freshman. I thought Dallas Woolfolk had a really good fall. He’s a short reliever for us this spring and has a tremendous arm and work ethic. Other guys, Andrew Lowe and Andy Pagnozzi, really competed in the fall and will give us innings this year.”

After playing the nation’s toughest schedule in 2015, the Ole Miss baseball team will have another challenging 56-game slate. The regular season kicks off with Florida International coming to Swayze Field for a three-game series, Feb. 19-21, and culminates when the Rebels hit the road to battle Texas A&M three months later (May 19-21) in the final contests prior to starting postseason play with the SEC Tournament (May 24-29).

The schedule is highlighted by 19 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last summer, including 13 games versus opponents with an RPI in the top 25 at the end of the 2015 season. Although 34 percent of the schedule consists of NCAA Tournament teams, Ole Miss will host the majority of them at venerable Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field. The 32-game home slate features 15 contests versus opponents that qualified for the 2015 NCAA Tournament, including six against College World Series teams. Arkansas visits Oxford (April 8-10), and the Rebels will square off against LSU (April 28-30).

“We are excited about the challenge of playing a difficult schedule,” mentioned Bianco. “Last season, we had the toughest schedule in the country, which groomed us for SEC play down the stretch and leading into the NCAA Tournament.”

With another tough schedule, the Rebels will once again have to show their toughness as they grind through the non-conference schedule and the gauntlet that is SEC baseball. Nonetheless, Ole Miss has a combination of veterans and talented newcomers that plan to play relentlessly and selflessly to maintain the program’s traditional success.

“Experience means so much in athletics, so I think the key is to be consistent,” said Bianco.

If the consistency is there throughout the 2016 season, the Rebels have the talent to return to Omaha.

As the Rebels gear up for the 2016 campaign, follow Ole Miss Baseball on Twitter at @OleMissBSB, on Facebook at Ole Miss Baseball and on Instagram at olemissbsb.

Courtesy of Ole Miss Sports Information

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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