Baseball Preview: Diamond Rebs travel to Starkville for series with State
Scouting the Bulldogs
The Ole Miss Rebels (25-8, 8-4 SEC) are on the road this weekend against the Bulldogs of Mississippi State (24-7, 8-4 SEC).
The Diamond Rebs’ first four series of 2021 against SEC opponents have been some of the most daunting in the league. After sweeping Auburn at home, followed by a sweep of Alabama on the road, Ole Miss lost two of three games at Florida and also two of three against Arkansas in Oxford this past weekend.
The Rebels, who had been ranked in the top three in the nation, are now sitting at No. 6 in the D1Baseball.com poll, but I expect them to recover some of their early season momentum by keeping their heads up and staying ready for the next pitch.
Game One Matchup: Gunnar Hoglund vs. Christian McCleod
Mississippi State will start LHP Christian McLeod (3-2, 2.72 ERA) on the hill on Friday night. McLeod, a 6’4,” 225-lb. sophomore from Huntsville, Alabama, has a fastball in the to low-90s and a mean changeup in the 79-81 mph range. He also uses a 12-6 curve that has a sinking action.
McLeod’s numbers might not leap off the page at you, but his accuracy and command are his weapons. When he combines this with his ability to change speed, he forces the hitter’s eyes to shift levels and makes the velocity of his fastball appear faster.
McLeod will square off against the Rebels’ RHP Gunnar Hoglund (3-1, 2.57 ERA) who wants to improve his record this week against a Mississippi State team that is loaded top to bottom in hitting.
Last week Gunnar struggled a bit in his command, but he has located his pitches well over the his last two games, even with an 0-1 record in those starts.
Hoglund will need to be on with each of his pitches and be able to adapt quickly. He has some excellent outings this year — including his shutout of Auburn at home — but his start in Starkville is the most important of the season, or at least it is this week.
The Rebels have played their best when Gunnar can be efficient in his pitches and go deep into the game which helps relieve some pressure on the Rebs’ bullpen.
Game Two Matchup: Doug Nikhazy vs. Will Bednar
The Saturday night starter for State is RHP Will Bednar (2-0, 2.10 ERA). Bednar throws a 92-94 mph fastball that he can add a bit of heat on to push up to 96 mph on the gun.
While Bednar’s fastball comes in hot, he does struggle in hitting his spots. His slider has a sweeping shape to it, and he uses it to expand the zone. The high spin-rate on his slider makes it the perfect complement to his fastball. Bednar will mix in a changeup that he uses out of the strike zone.
If the Mississippi State righty can keep his control and command and work his fastball in the upper quadrant of the zone the way he plans to, then opposing batters will have a long day.
The Rebels will start LHP Doug Nikhazy (3-1, 2.43 ERA) on Saturday afternoon in Starkville. Nikhazy pitched well last week in his win against Arkansas, and he was feeling his curveball. Doug needs to continue to work his fastball and curve well during this weekend because it would not take many errant pitches to turn this Saturday in Starkville into a dog day.
Game Three Matchup: Drew McDaniel vs. Jackson Fristoe
Sunday will see RHP Jackson Fristoe (3-2, 4.13 ERA) take the hill for MSU. Fristoe, a 6’4,” 180-lb. true freshman from Paducah, Kentucky, has a fastball that will top out in the 95-96 mph range and has a sinking action to it.
Fristoe has both an 11-5 curveball that has depth and bite and a slider in his arsenal. He has the potential to develop his changeup as well but uses it rarely. Fristoe will get himself into trouble with his mechanics occasionally because of his long, wiry frame.
This week the Sunday Ole Miss starter is RHP Drew McDaniel (4-0, 2.90 ERA), and he will go to work under the most hostile conditions a Rebel could imagine.
Drew has a strong repertoire with a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a nasty breaking ball with tight spin. McDaniel has looked sharp in his outings this year as and will look to replace Derek Diamond who had a brutal 1.1 innings of work last week in Oxford against the No. 1 Hogs.
The Rebels’ offense picked up the pace as it outhit the No. 2 team in the country last weekend, but the pitching staff must now show the ability to do the same.
These two teams are heavyweights in the Top 10 this year; however, Ole Miss has taken some blows to its roster with the injuries to first baseman Cael Baker, LHP Doug Nikhazy, team captain and third/first baseman Tim Elko, and most recently third baseman Justin Bench and RHP Max Cioffi.
Bench could possibly return to the lineup this weekend after sitting out the Austin Peay game this week, but Cioffi is out for the remainder of the season with a UCL tear.
Coach Mike Bianco reached deep into his bullpen in the mid-week matchup Tuesday and debuted the arms of Brandon Johnson and Jack Dougherty who pitched very well against Austin Peay. The Diamond Rebs need to have players who continue to step up, take the ball and make the most out of their outing for this team to live up to its early season ranking.
The strength of Ole Miss’ opponent this week makes for an uphill battle, but this team will not back down. Regardless of the two series losses, the Rebs have the talent to rebound. They will continue to look to some of the freshmen who are stepping up ahead of schedule and making the most out of their opportunities.
Dudy-Noble Field in Starkville will be packed this weekend, and the rivalry will be renewed for one of this year’s most epic showdowns in college baseball.
Series with Mississippi State
Game 1 – Friday 6 pm on SEC Network
Game 2 – Saturday 2 pm on SECN+
Game 3 – Sunday 1 pm on SECN+