The slate was wiped clean and a new Ole Miss baseball began on Friday.
Unofficially, of course.
First pitch of the 2019 season is still months away, but that didn’t stop the Rebels from taking to Swayze Field to open fall practices. While they lost their entire weekend rotation from a 48-17 team that earned a national seed and hosted a regional last season, they return seven starting position players, including freshman All-American Tyler Keenan and veteran sluggers Thomas Dillard and Ryan Olenek.
Bianco said attention will obviously be on the mound to see which pitchers – namely newcomer Gunnar Hoglund – emerge, but he’ll be keeping his eye on the entire diamond as Ole Miss attempts to put its pieces in place for another postseason run come February.
“It’s really everybody, but it’s no secret that we return most of the position players and we lost the starting rotation from last year,” he said. “I think everybody will be looking at the pitchers and who’s going to fill those roles. But it happens every year. There’s a Tyler Keenan or whatnot that steps up as a young person and jumps into the starting nine and really impacts the team. This is why this week and this day is really fun because of that anticipation. Who’s going to be that next guy? Who’s going to be the next freshman All-American? The pitchers, obviously, we’ll all be watching. But that’ll all play out and take several months for that to come into shape.”
Ole Miss had 17 players in six different summer collegiate baseball leagues through late-August. All-American closer Parker Caracci was one of them, as was rotation candidates Greer Holston and Houston Roth, meaning they’ll be starting a little bit later in an effort to provide much-needed rest for their arms in the buildup to the season. Caracci and fellow reliever Max Cioffi threw bullpen sessions on Friday and should be ready to go next week.
Ole Miss’ fall schedule runs Sept. 21-Nov. 2.
“I think Greer Holston is a week behind them, and then Roth is a week behind him,” Bianco said. “There’s a handful. Most of the guys are good. No injuries, it’s just workload in the summer.”
Returning shortstop and leadoff hitter Grae Kessinger broke his thumb in his first game with the Bourne Braves in June. He’s fully recovered and participating in drills. However, he’s being watched closely by the training staff, as to be expected.
“He’s been good,” Bianco said. “Really when we got out in August, the first, maybe, week of defense and skill work, he was throwing but it was more rehab throwing to where we wanted to make sure he wasn’t throwing with the other guys. But from day one he’s been out there with no limitations.”
Much of the next few weeks will consist of trying different players in different spots. Chase Cockrell, who served as the team’s primary designated hitter a year ago, will head to the outfield, as will infielder Tim Elko.
Anthony Servideo impressed in the summer. He was named to the Cal Ripken League All-Star team after finishing with the highest batting average (.391) on the Baltimore Redbirds. Servideo finished second in the league in batting average, section in on-base percentage (.517), tied for first in runs scored (35) and first in triples (8). He’s competing with senior Jacob Adams at second base, but he could work his way into a starting role at any number of positions depending on need.
“Cockrell will be in the outfield,” Bianco said. “Elko will play some outfield as well. You’ll certainly see Dillard behind the plate more, but he’s done that in the fall. But I really think he’s going to have an opportunity to catch some this year. Servideo played a whole day (Friday) at short. Sunday, he’ll play some short and some second. We’ll move those guys (including Adams) around a lot. Both can play the middle, some at third, maybe in the outfield for both of those guys. We’ll figure out by the time we get to mid-February where some other pieces fall in place or maybe don’t fall in place and we have to move one of those infielders out there.
“Let’s not understate how good of an infielder (Servideo) really is. He, really, can play any position on the field besides catcher and pitcher. We’ll give him every opportunity to be a starter on the infield first.”
Hoglund was the crown jewel of the 2018 class, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft. However, he opted for school instead following a four-year career at Dayspring Academy in Port Richey, Fla., where he recorded a 7-0 record and 0.27 ERA as a senior. For his high school career, he was 16-10 with a 1.31 ERA and 310 strikeouts.
He’ll see some time this fall at first base, too, even if he started the first scrimmage on Friday on the mound and didn’t hit. Hoglund hit .385 as a senior. He was named the County Player of the Year. Freshman LHP Doug Nikhaz hit Friday and will pitch Sunday.
“He may play a little first, but right now in the intrasquad games he’ll be mostly pitching and hitting,” Bianco said. “I don’t know if we’ll keep it like that. It’s not a rule that you can’t hit when you pitch, but it just worked easier (Friday) and Sunday because of the amount of innings. We’ll take it from there. But I really don’t see (Hoglund) playing anything in the fall other than first base and DH.”
Ole Miss will host intrasquads each Friday and Sunday in the fall, with the Rebels scheduled to take on Delta State (Oct. 13) and Little Rock (Oct. 27) in scrimmage action. The practice season will conclude with the Pizza Bowl Nov. 2.