Baseball Preview: Ole Miss hosts Xavier in weekend series
OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss baseball returns to action this weekend against Xavier in a series at Swayze. The Rebels enter the weekend 3-1 after beating No. 1 Louisville in the season-opening series and after surviving a 9-8 walk-off win in extra innings against Alcorn State Wednesday.
Following the win over the Cardinals, Ole Miss moved up to No. 15 in the Baseball America rankings.
Xavier Series Info
Dates: February 21-23
First Pitch: 4 p.m. | 1:30 p.m. | Noon
Location: Oxford, Miss.
Venue: Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field
Dimensions: LF-330, CF-390, RF-330 (11,477)
TV: SEC Network+
Play by Play: Seth Austin
Analyst: Matt Mossberg
Radio: Ole Miss Radio Network
Play by Play: David Kellum
Analyst: Brad Henderson
Series History: First Meeting
Ole Miss vs. Current Big East: 1-1 (vs. St. John’s)
Xavier, coming off a second-place finish in the Big East looks to build on a strong 2019 campaign where the Musketeers challenged for the Big East regular season and tournament championships.
Xavier finished 2019 at 27-31 overall, playing against the 19th toughest non-conference schedule in the nation.
Ahead of the 2020 season, Xavier baseball was picked in a three-way tie for second place in the Big East by the league coaches. The Musketeers collected 28 points in the preseason poll, including one first place vote, to match Seton Hall and St. John’s for second. Creighton was picked first with 29 points.
Musketeers on the Mound
The Musketeers return a strong core from last season’s bullpen, including sophomore Lane Flamm, a unanimous selection to the preseason All-Big East squad after earning All-Big East Second Team honors following his rookie season. As a freshman, the righty emerged as the Musketeers’ go-to closer, appearing in 25 games as a reliever.
Flamm finished with an ERA of 2.68 overall and 1.80 in Big East action, collecting eight saves in 53.2 innings of work last season, with four coming in against conference opponents. Those eight saves are the seventh most in a single season by a Musketeer, and jump Flamm to eighth all time on the Xavier career save list.
Flamm allowed just 16 earned runs with 47 strikeouts overall in 2019, with only three runs allowed in 15.0 innings of work in Big East play.
The Musketeers also return a pair of starters from 2019 in Nick Zwack and Griffin Lanoue. Zwack, a lefty entering his junior season, made 20 appearances with 12 starts in 2019, finishing with a record of 4-3 and an ERA of 6.28. Zwack gave up 37 earned runs on 61 hits, struck out 43 and walked just 24 in 53.0 innings of work as a sophomore.
Lanoue made 10 starts in 13 appearances during 2019, finishing the season with a 3-3 record after allowing 34 earned runs on 54 hits, while striking out 25 in 45.1 innings of work.
Musketeers at bat
Allbry Major, who started in 51 games, primarily in left field, leads the returning Musketeers in batting average from 2019, finishing .281 at the plate through 51 starts. Major collected 57 hits, including a team-high 15 doubles and brought in 34 RBI during his sophomore season.
Sophomore Luke Franzoni made 42 appearances during his rookie season, including 32 starts, mostly in center field. Franzoni hit .254 for his freshman season, hitting his stride during Big East play where batted .320 in 14 appearances with a .620 slugging percentage, boosted by a team-high four homeruns against Big East opponents.
Franzoni led the Musketeers with 11 homers overall for a team-best slugging percentage of .563 for the season. His 35 RBI from 2019 are the most among Xavier’s returnees.
Xavier behind the plate
Returning behind the plate, senior catcher Natale Monastra earned the first preseason honors of his career following his selection to the All-Big East Second Team following his junior campaign. Monastra finished the 2019 season with a fielding percentage of .997, the highest among Xavier’s regular players. Monastra has just one error in 51 appearances, and has a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 13 starts in Big East play.
At the plate, Monastra had a .313 average in Big East play and a .237 mark overall for 2019. He finished with 41 total hits, with 15 in conference action, including five doubles, three triples and four home runs. All three of Monastra’s triples came against conference opponents.
A Look at the Rebels
Most of the nation’s No. 1 class from 2016 has made its way through the Ole Miss baseball program and on to the professional ranks, but head coach Mike Bianco’s Rebels have reloaded with 2019’s No. 2 class according to Baseball America.
The class includes four incoming freshmen—Derek Diamond, Hayden Dunhurst, Jerrion Ealy and Trey LaFleur—who were selected in the 2019 MLB Draft.
Ealy comes to Oxford as the highest-rated prospect (12th) in the 2019 Perfect Game high school rankings to choose college over the MLB Draft.
Ole Miss is the only program in the country to enroll four top-50 prospects for the 2019 class in both the Perfect Game and Baseball America rankings: Ealy, Connor Walsh, Derek Diamond and Hayden Dunhurst.
There are a total of 20 newcomers on the Rebel roster, including six junior college transfers. That list includes the NJCAA Player of the Year Cael Baker, NJCAA Second Team All-American Ben Van Cleve and NJCAA All-Region outfielder Hayden Leatherwood.
Cael Baker Earns Two Awards for Opening Series
Based on his performance against Louisville — including hitting .417 with a double, two home runs and five RBI — junior 1B/DH Cael Baker earned SEC Co-Player of the Week as well as Golden Spikes Award Performance of the Week.
Servideo Walks it Off
Ole Miss faced a mighty challenge from underdog Alcorn State in the midweek after the Braves jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning. The Rebels chipped their way back and claimed the lead, but the scrappy Braves kept battling ultimately tying the game at eight to force extra innings.
However, in the bottom of the 10th, the top of the Rebel lineup took to the plate, and it didn’t take long for the lead red and blue bats to end it. Servideo took the third pitch he saw in the inning and lofted it high over the right field wall for the walk-off home run, his second of homer of the season. It was the first walk-off win for Ole Miss since April 27, 2019, against Texas A&M and the first walk-off homer since March 2, 2019, against Long Beach State—both coming off the bat of Thomas Dillard. It was also the Rebels’ first extra-inning affair since their wild 19-15 series-clinching win at LSU on May 5, 2019.
Year 2 for 2 Aces
Last season, Ole Miss didn’t return any weekend starters. This season, the Rebels return two as Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund are back after combining for 37 appearances, 30 starts and 157.2 innings pitched a season ago.
Hoglund opened the 2019 season as the Sunday starter, and he held that role all the way through the Fayetteville Super Regional. Nikhazy began the season in the bullpen but pitched his way to a starting role, beginning with midweek starts against ECU and Louisville before claiming the Saturday starter role during the second week of SEC play. He went on to earn First Team Freshman All-America honors. Nikhazy will run out on Friday nights with Hoglund getting the ball on Saturdays.
Diamonds are for Sunday
For the second straight season, Ole Miss started a true freshman on Sunday of opening weekend. Last season it was Gunnar Hoglund, this season it’s Derek Diamond. Both Hoglund and Diamond were taken in the MLB Draft but decided instead to come to Oxford. Diamond was strong in his collegiate debut, going toe-to-toe with Louisville senior Luke Smith, earning a no-decision in Sunday’s win after allowing tossing 5.2 innings with just three earned runs allowed.
The tough schedule for Ole Miss won’t end after taking on the nation’s top team on opening weekend. This season, the Rebels will play 29 games against teams ranked in the preseason top 25, 15 of which will be played at Swayze Field. Nine SEC teams are ranked going into the season, and all eight of the other ranked teams appear on Ole Miss’ schedule.
Evelyn has covered sports for over two decades, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn’s love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship. Evelyn created the Rebel Walk in 2013 and has served as publisher and managing editor since its inception.