PREVIEW: No. 18 Rebels host No. 2 Vanderbilt in final regular-season SEC series at Swayze
Rebels Host Vanderbilt in final regular-season SEC series at home
OXFORD, Miss. — The No. 18 Ole Miss Rebels (33-14, 14-10 SEC) are set to face off this weekend against the No. 2 Vanderbilt Commodores in the final SEC series played at Swayze Field this season.
The Rebs had aspirations of hosting an Oxford regional by winning the series against the Aggies last weekend, but a season-ending injury to Gunnar Hoglund likely derails those plans.
Now, Ole Miss is on the bubble as the final 20 sites will be announced by the NCAA selection committee Friday. The Rebels should be in the field of 20 teams announced but will have to play their way into the final 16 seeds via their performance in the final seven games of the season.
If the Rebs are able to win four more SEC games and advance with two or three wins in Hoover, that might be just enough to lock in a top 16 seed and a regional hosting berth. But Ole Miss cannot afford to look ahead right now, as Vanderbilt heads to Oxford for a Friday-Saturday-Sunday series.
Game One Matchup
Vanderbilt will start Kumar Rocker (11-1, 2.31 ERA) at Swayze Friday night. Rocker is a power pitcher who has the ability to throw two additional pitches with great success.
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) May 10, 2021
His fastball sits at 92-96 mph consistently, but he has reached as high as 99 mph on the radar gun. He uses his velocity, and he can locate it to all quadrants of the strike zone.
The 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound Rocker has a high 3/4s delivery that he uses from a circle wind-up. The Vanderbilt ace has shown the ability to just power through an opponent’s lineup and hit 96 mph repeatedly when he needs to. Rocker has a slider that he works in very effectively at 82-85 mph. The righty for Vanderbilt has also shown that he can throw an 87-90 mph cutter that can be devastating as well.
Rocker does not make many mistakes, and his command and high-velocity arsenal make it difficult for any offense. When opposing batters do make contact, it is usually ineffective.
His talent and skill make Rocker the number one draft pick of the 2021 season. He’s also able to pitch deep into a game where he’s gone over 100 pitches with relative ease.
After the season-ending injury to the Rebels’ ace Gunnar Hoglund who has been the Friday night starter, Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco will move Doug Nikhazy up to that position. No stranger to his new role, Nikhazy (6-2, 2.47 ERA) gives the Rebels the best chance in matching strength for strength.
Game Two Matchup
Bianco made the announcement last night that Derek Diamond (3-3, 4.91 ERA) will return to the starting lineup for the Rebels on the mound Saturday in game two.
Diamond has the ability to hit 96 mph with his fastball, and when he gets out to a good start and hits his locations, he is able to build some momentum and work downhill.
After some uncertainty this week regarding Commodores’ pitcher Jack Leiter starting on Saturday versus the Rebs, the announcement came on Thursday that he will make the start against Diamond.
Leiter (7-2, 2.10 ERA) is the complete prototypical major league pitcher. His fastball is between 94-97 mph with a plus-fastball at 98 mph. The Vanderbilt righty has a clean delivery from a high 3/4s arm slot and he delivers it with plenty of life. His curveball is between 74-78 mph and used occasionally as a different look to the batter.
Leiter also has a distinctly different slider between 84-86 mph, and he can weave it in and out with life and excellent depth. Leiter’s release point is deceptive and when coupled with his other breaking balls, his fastball is unhittable at times.
Earlier this season he threw a no-hitter versus South Carolina in Nashville and struck out 16 opposing batters. Although Leiter is capable of going the distance, expect him to be held to a hard pitch count as Vandy Head Coach Tim Corbin will not want to risk any injury or further complication as a result of the fatigue he felt in the past two games.
Earlier in the week, Coach Corbin said Leiter’s condition at practice would be the determining factor in whether or not he starts this weekend.
“(Leiter) wants to pitch. Today and tomorrow (Wednesday and Thursday) will be good indicators of that. So we’re just waiting on the throwing piece before we decide. He just needed some time to recover from throwing over the past six, seven, eight weeks.“
Vandy head coach Tim Corbin on the status of pitcher Jack Leiter
Game Three Matchup
Drew McDaniel (4-0, 4.50 ERA) will get the nod for the Rebels on Sunday and will face the No. 4 pitcher for Vanderbilt, Patrick Reilly (4-1, 3.86 ERA).
Reilly has a fastball he works in the low 90s. He is a 6-foot-3-inch righty who will use all quadrants of the strike zone as well.
To complement his fastball, Reilly has displayed a 73-76 mph curveball and can throw off-speedp to change velocity. Reilly has primarily been used in Vandy’s midweek games. He gets in trouble when he can’t locate his pitches and racks up the pitch count.
Here’s more of our series preview with Steven Willis and Chad Smith:
Weekend Series Preview: Commodores coming to town https://t.co/bIDglG1ueX
— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) May 13, 2021
Vanderbilt’s primary offensive weapons are Carter Young and Dominic Keegan. Young has tallied 13 home runs on the season, and he’s stolen nine bases on the year. Keegan is hitting .354 on the year, and he has notched home runs for the Commodores.
Five Vanderbilt starters have higher than a .300 batting average, so the Rebels must pitch around these strengths of Vanderbilt. I look for Coach Bianco to take an aggressive stance in this series and try to jump ahead early offensively the way that they have all year.
An aggressive approach from Bianco and hitting Coach Mike Clement will give the Rebels the best chance at winning this weekend. While this approach most likely will lead to more strikeouts in game one, Ole Miss must attack consistently and not try to lay back and wait.
The final series of the year at Swayze Field is upon us. With all the injuries that have taken such a toll, the Diamond Rebels will have to muster all of their strength to win this series — but this just may be what they need to spark a strong run in Hoover and on into the postseason.
Game 1 – Friday at 6 pm on SECN
Game 2 – Saturday at 4 pm on SECN+
Game 3 – Sunday at 2 PM on SECN
(Feature image credit: Evie Van Pelt, Rebel Walk)