Welcome Back

Red, white and blue banners hung from the grandstands for the third day in a row. Scattered clouds crossed the sky. A steady wind blew out to center field. Mid-seventies temperatures. Students again lined the right field terrace with tents and lawn chairs. Baseball is back in Oxford all right.

Glorious. Freaking. Baseball.

Ole Miss donned its red jerseys on this perfect Oxford Sunday. The Rebels had already taken its three-game series with Wright State, but they brought the brooms out through a solid first outing by junior college transfer Austin Wright and a handful of timely hits.

"I'm going to tell ‘ya, they gave us everything we wanted. They're good," head coach Mike Bianco said of Wright State. "They're going to win a lot of games. They're very, very well coached. You can tell why they win their league and go to NCAA Tournaments a lot."

The win capped a perfect season-opening weekend -- one that brought excitement for a young and unproven team. There were new faces all around the diamond, most notably on the left side of the infield, where shortstop Blake Newalu and third baseman Preston Overbey replaced two lineup regulars in Kevin Mort and Zach Miller, respectively.

The pitching staff was brand new. No longer can Ole Miss count on the reliable arm of Drew Pomeranz on Friday nights. Matt Crouse toed the rubber on Opening Day. David Goforth followed Saturday. Wright, a left-hander, held Wright State to one run in five complete innings in the finale.

"We are a young team," Newalu said. "It was pretty nerve-wracking the first couple of innings, but we all got through it. (The three-game sweep) is a big confidence boost for the younger guys. It's been a good weekend. It's unreal, man. This is what you play the game for, to have opportunities like this."

Newalu experienced his first weekend series at Ole Miss in the three-game sweep of Wright State
Courtesy: Bruce Newman
You could have worn swimming trunks and flip-flops today. It wouldn't have mattered, honestly. There could have been no better setting for baseball. Not one of the 8,146 fans in attendance would have noticed.

Because on a day like today, when the bats were live and the dirt was flying, one can easily recognize the general optimism surrounding this program.

A total of 24,775 fans entered the gates of Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field this weekend.

"This is the best place by far to play baseball in the SEC," senior first baseman Matt Smith said. "There were 8,000 fans here three days in a row. I think that says a lot. It's Sunday, and even though it's opening weekend, normally this is our day that a lot of fans don't show up. But we still had 8,000.

"It's tough to play here for any opponent. That's what makes Swayze, Swayze."

Ole Miss isn't perfect. It has its issues. The bullpen was inconsistent all weekend.

R.J. Hively, in his season debut in the eighth inning of today's win, allowed three runs in a third of an inning pitched. Brett Huber, who relieved Hively and got Ole Miss out of trouble, struggled the day before. Like Hively, he gave up three runs while recording only one out Saturday.

Huber recorded his first save of the season in today's win.

But there's plenty to like about this team. The Rebels can hit, as evidenced by the 38 combined hits they recorded in three days. Wright State, obviously, isn't the greatest of competition. Still, the Raiders are no push-over. They were champions of the Horizon League last season, and picked to win their league again in 2011.

"We won in different ways, which is good for us I think," Smith said. "This was a pretty good test for us this weekend. It's just great to see that our team can be put in different situations and can still fight and keep our focus and pull it out in the end."

An in-depth breakdown of Ole Miss' strengths and weaknesses can wait. The Rebels are just three games into their season, and they won them all. They'll lose some games. It's inevitable in the marathon of a baseball season.

The questions, as with every year, will surround this team's ability or inability to reach the seemingly unreachable destination – Omaha. That remains to be seen. But, hey, there are days, weeks, months to discuss these things.

For now, let's take in the triumphant return of America's pastime. It's back. Finally, it's back. Mitts popping. The intoxicating aroma of grilled hot dogs, crawfish and your favorite beverage, whether it's alcoholic or not. The freshly-cut outfield. The chalk. The chants. Echoes of "Sweet Caroline" as groundskeepers rake the infield.

Welcome back, baseball. How much we've missed you.

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