OXFORD, Miss. – With the 2017 Ole Miss baseball season in the rear view mirror, the 2018 Rebels took the field with high hopes on opening weekend as they faced the Winthrop Eagles of the Big South Conference.
While not a powerhouse program, the 2017 regular-season Big South Conference Champion Eagles—and preseason pick to win the conference in 2018—returned eight of their top 10 batters, along with the conference preseason Pitcher of the Year, Nate Pawelczyk, and Big South Freshman of the Year, Pitcher Colten Rendon.
The Rebels entered the series with plenty of accolades of their own, including a No. 9 national ranking from D1Baseball, being picked to finish third in the ultra-talented SEC West, and a plethora of individual honors for Friday night starter Ryan Rolison (preseason All-American, USA Golden Spikes Award Watch List) and closer Dallas Woolfolk (preseason All-American, preseason All-SEC, and Stopper of the Year Watch List).
By the way, opening day is special for fans, players and coaches, alike. If you haven’t seen the rush by the students to secure seats in the student section this past Tuesday, take a look (below). It was definitely a sight to behold!
On Friday, in a pregame interview with David Kellum, the “Voice of the Rebels,” head coach Mike Bianco voiced his excitement about the beginning of this season.
“I get excited just like everybody. New season, new transfers, new freshmen.”
Head coach Mike Bianco
Friday Night: Ole Miss 7, Winthrop 3
(Click here for box score.)
As expected, Ryan Rolison, was the Friday night starter for the Rebels. In his post-game interview with Keith Kessinger, Rolison commented, “It’s any pitchers dream to get the ball on opening night.”
Rolison did not disappoint. The draft-eligible sophomore recorded a career-high 12 strike-outs in five innings of work. Of Rolison, who allowed only two walks and one hit, his head coach remarked, “He made it look pretty easy.”
In evaluating his pitching, Rolison was pleased with his performance. “I felt good out of the gate. I able to find my fastball early along with my slider . . . I was able to fill up the zone,” he said.
Pitching: Following Rolison to the mound Friday was sophomore Houston Roth, who threw three innings of shutout baseball. Roth dealt four strikeouts and allowed only two hits. Will Stokes then closed the game for the Rebels, allowing the lone Eagle run of the ninth.
Going into the season, many Rebel faithful knew the strength of the team was going to be the outstanding depth on the pitching staff, and Friday night’s performance at the plate equaled the arms on the mound.
Hitting: Up and down the lineup, every Rebel recorded at least one hit. Freshman third baseman Tyler Keenan, sophomore catcher Cooper Johnson, and sophomore left fielder Thomas Dillard all recorded multiple hits, Dillard notching three singles.
After the game, Dillard told Keith Kessinger he was just trying to put the ball in play, noting, “It’s easy to go up there when Rolo is throwing up zeros the whole time.”
The big blow to Winthrop came in the form of a three-run home run by senior DH Tim Rowe in the third inning. Rowe’s home run had an exit velocity of 106.1 miles per hour and traveled an estimated 402 feet. It was hit to right center field and the Ole Miss student section cheered wildly.
In total, Ole Miss tallied 13 hits and 7 runs in the Game One win and coasted to a relatively easy 7-3 opening-day victory.
Saturday Night: Ole Miss 8, Winthrop 1
(Click here for box score.)
Rain in Oxford delayed the scheduled first pitch of Saturday’s game from a 1:30 p.m start to a 6:00 p.m. evening start, but the Ole Miss hitters and pitchers picked up where they left off Friday.
Saturday, Ole Miss hitters pounded out 14 hits and eight runs, while the Rebels’ pitchers scattered six hits over nine innings and allowed no earned runs.
The defensive alignment looked a little different in Saturday’s game: Nick Fortes moved from first base to catcher; sophomore Cole Zabowski took Fortes’ position at catcher; and junior Ryan Olenek moved from right field to second base.
Taking Olenek’s place in right fight was Friday night’s DH, Tim Rowe. Sophomore Chase Cockrell took over the DH duties Saturday, and freshman Tim Elko made his first collegiate start at third base.
Hitting: Rebels with multiple hits in game two included shortstop Grae Kessinger, second baseman Ryan Olenek, designated hitter Chase Cockrell, and first baseman Cole Zabowski.
Zabowski launched a three-run homer in the second inning, and Ole Miss never trailed. Seven of the Rebels’ first eight runs were scored with two outs—going to back to Friday night’s theme of timely hitting. Newcomers recording their first hits in the Red and Blue included freshmen Tim Elko and Michael Spears.
Pitching: Senior pitcher Brady Feigl threw six innings of scoreless baseball, allowing six hits, one walk and recording six strikeouts. Bianco noted he was proud of how Feigl was able to make some pitches and get out of trouble without allowing the Eagles to score. Bullpen appearances were made by Greer Holston, who kept the Eagles off the scoreboard in the 7th and 8th innings, and Parker Caracci, who hurled a scoreless 9th inning.
Sunday: Ole Miss 3, Winthrop 1
(Click here for box score.)
In a somewhat perplexing decision, the Winthrop coaching staff held their ace, Nate Pawelczyk, out until Sunday’s game—as opposed to Fridays when most aces start.
Ole Miss countered with James McArthur, a veteran right hander from New Braunfels, Texas. McArthur is the only Rebel pitcher who started a game every weekend in 2017.
With Pawelczyk on the mound, it was thought that runs would be tough to come by, and they were. The Eagles and Rebels traded runs in the fourth inning, with the Ole Miss score coming off a Ryan Olenek sacrifice fly that scored Will Golsan.
The two teams remained scoreless until the bottom of the seventh when Grae Kessinger smashed a ball to a drawn-in short stop. Aggressive on the basepaths, third base coach Mike Clement sent James Adams home as the ball scooted away from the Eagle shortstop.
Initially ruled safe, the call would be confirmed after video review. Following the game, Grae commented to Kevin Kessinger, “I did what I had to do move the ball.”
The two seventh-inning runs were the last we would see in the game—but they were all the Rebels would need.
Pitching: Though McArthur got in a bit of trouble in the first inning Sunday, he managed to get out of a bases-loaded jam. He went five full innings allowing only a single unearned run.
Freshman Jordan Fowler threw two innings and recorded the win as the pitcher of record in the seventh. Making his first appearance of season, Will Ethridge pitched a scoreless eighth inning. In the ninth, highly acclaimed closer Dallas Woolfolk took the hill for the first time this season. He looked dominant, tallying two strike-outs and an infield pop-up and earning his first save of the year.
— Ole Miss BSB Analytics (@OMBSBAnalytics) February 18, 2018
In Sunday’s post-game interview, Bianco reflected on the weekend. “We didn’t talk about sweeping Winthrop; we talked about playing better,” he said.
The Rebels did both over the weekend. Bianco was impressed with the aggressiveness of the offense, both on the bases and at the plate. “Everybody looked like they belonged (out there),” he said.
Next Up for Ole Miss
The Rebels return to Oxford-University Stadium Tuesday afternoon with a 4 p.m. start against regional foe Memphis. The homestand continues next weekend, as Tulane comes to town Friday (4:00 p.m.), Saturday (3:00 p.m.) and Sunday (1:30 p.m.).