Mississippi’s SEC baseball coaches differ slightly on the impact that COVID-19 could have on the 2021 season.
As conference commissioners, athletics directors and university presidents across the country have worked to save football for 2020, it seems a long time ago that baseball and basketball felt swift and severe effects from the pandemic.
The NCAA canceled basketball’s March Madness – and looking ahead, in a move that drew some criticism in March, also canceled the College World Series.
Ole Miss was riding a 16-game win streak after a season-opening loss, and Mississippi State was 12-4 when their seasons ended. Neither they nor anyone else played an SEC game.
In the days that followed, the NCAA extended an extra season of eligibility to spring sports athletes and Major League Baseball shortened its draft to five rounds. The trickle down effect from MLB’s decision means many players who might have turned pro will return to school instead.
“I joke with our staff because we sit around and say, ‘We have a chance to be really good,’” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. “But so does everyone else.”
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco believes Lemonis is right, yet eyes the 2021 season more cautiously.
The Rebels, barely mentioned in the preseason top 25 discussion, had coupled solid pitching with an explosive offense and at 16-1 were growing with confidence.
It was a good experience for young players, but it wasn’t the complete experience. It did not include the 30-game SEC schedule or NCAA postseason, which are prime times for growth.
Those experiences helped right-hander Gunnar Hoglund take major steps from a freshman season in which he had some big innings but ultimately posted an ERA of 5.29 in 68 innings.
“By the time he became a sophomore, he was one of the most dominant pitchers in the country,” Bianco said.
Hoglund had a 1.16 ERA and a 3-0 record in 23 1/3 innings in an abbreviated 2020.
Bianco questions whether freshmen like Peyton Chatagnier and Derek Diamond, who didn’t see the SEC or postseason, will experience the same growth.
Chatagnier started 15 games at second base and hit .311 with four doubles and four home runs in 61 at-bats.
Diamond, the Sunday starter, had a 3.48 ERA in 20 2/3 innings.
“We see a lot of guys that when they show up on campus, and you watch their maturation through their freshman year, they’re different guys,” Bianco said.
Lemonis believes the biggest challenge in 2021 will be managing the pitching staff.
The Bulldogs posted a 2.85 staff ERA in their 16 games.
“We have more numbers on the pitching side because of the way the draft hit,” Lemonis said.
The result could be SEC rotation-type arms starting non-conference games in the middle of the week.
“We will be throwing out guys who might have turned down a million dollars in the draft,” he said. “Those young kids need some time and development. They want to play in this nice ballpark with all these fans, and then you get out there on the mound, and it’s a little different. You have to learn.”