An Evaluation

Mike Bianco is coming off his worst season in 11 years as head baseball coach at Ole Miss. That calls for a major evaluation of a program that has over the past decade seen unparalleled success in 40 years.

Bianco said, although there is always a year-end evaluation, this year's is more important.

"You look into everything," he said after his team sat home in the postseason for the first time since 2002. "You look into recruiting, pitching, hitting, defense, offense. You look into game management. You look into practices. We look at what we do in the offices every day. We re-evaluate and look at everything, because we weren't good enough. It's healthy. You have to do it, and that's in any line of work."

Ole Miss was 30-25 overall and 13-17 in Southeastern Conference play, both low marks of the Bianco era. Due to some down recruiting years after the departure of former assistant coach Dan McDonnell in 2006, the Rebels were thinner throughout the squad than had been the case earlier in the decade. Current assistant coach Carl Lafferty took over the reins as head recruiter a year and a half ago, and things have improved in that area.

The class about to enter should be ranked among the nation's top 20, pending the outcome of draftee negotiations and/or arrival for school. The class after that (2012) that currently consists of eight high school players, is already ranked seventh nationally in one poll. Bianco admitted this year's team, especially the depth of the pitching staff, wasn't up to Ole Miss' recent standards.

"One of the biggest factors is we were just not as talented," he said. "This is not a slight on anybody. This (pitching) staff was not talented enough to win in this league. We've had that talent. We just didn't have it on this team."

The Rebels were dealt an injury blow with three pitchers who should have been on the 2011 team. One is here, one will be here, and one won't be here.

Tanner Bailey, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound right-handed pitcher, was here but sat out this past year with shoulder surgery and rehab. Casey Mulholland, the highly-touted right-hander who sat out what would have been his first year in college after Tommy John surgery and rehab, will be here this fall. Nathan Foriest, now at Middle Tennessee State, committed to the Rebels but never arrived on campus, had Tommy John surgery and rehab and is with the MTSU program.

Bailey will be a junior at Ole Miss in 2011-12, and Mulholland will be a freshman.

"That's three guys that didn't pitch last year here that were supposed to," Bianco said. "Weekend type guys who would have contributed immediately."

Jake Morgan was never 100 percent after late March
Bruce Newman
As it was, Bianco started the same three pitchers the first weekend of the season against Wright State as he did against Arkansas the last weekend of the campaign. He started Matt Crouse, David Goforth, and Austin Wright all season long, unusual for this Rebel program.

Crouse was drafted in the 24th round by Detroit last week, Goforth in the seventh round by the Brewers, and Wright in the eighth round by the Phillies.

"All three guys competed and gave us all they could," Bianco said. "All are talented in their own way and I thought competed and gave us so many opportunities. They deserved better fates, not just wins and losses but even ERA. But the bullpen was so inconsistent that I think we extended those guys, I extended those guys, longer than they deserved to be extended. The reason was obvious. They were better than what we had to bring in at that particular time in that particular game, at least in my opinion. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it obviously didn't work."

Bianco lamented the fact that there weren't as many options. He recalled not too long ago when there were. He also mentioned all-star closer Jake Morgan missing five weeks during the heart of the SEC season and not really being at his best at any point after the opening league weekend.

"You look back at some of the games and if we'd have had a healthy Jake Morgan, it might have been different," he said. "There was a time here we had Morgan, (Scott) Bittle, and (Nathan) Baker in the bullpen. Think about that. Those three guys. There were just not as many options this year."

Freshman RHP Mike Mayers was a bright spot in relief. Freshman RHP Bobby Wahl and junior RHP R.J. Hively would have been counted on earlier, but arm soreness the first three weeks of the season were setbacks for them. Bianco said Mayers and Wahl should be heavy contributors in 2012.

"Mayers was a guy who went out there and pitched the way he's capable. That's about command and locating three pitches. At the end (of the season) he made it a little difficult on himself and didn't pitch with the same mentality. I think that hurt him toward the end of the year, and that's why his ERA went up.

"Bobby will have a chance to start on the weekend next year. He's not just a guy with a big fast ball but a guy that can pitch, throw the ball in and out with a good breaking ball and a good changeup. I really think last season will help him. You certainly could see the talent he has, and he's going to be a star. No doubt in my mind."

Bianco said the incoming class, with freshmen pitchers such as 6-8 RHP Hawtin Buchanan, 6-1 RHP Josh Laxer, 6-5 RHP Chris Ellis, and 6-4 RHP Mulholland, will give Ole Miss immediate help. And don't underestimate how important they can be next season even as freshmen, he said.

Bobby Wahl will compete for a spot in the 2012 weekend rotation
Bruce Newman
"The class coming in has as many high-profile arms as we've ever had in one class," Bianco said. "That's exciting.

"Drew Pomeranz pitched here as a freshman, Lance Lynn as a freshman, Cody Satterwhite as a freshman, Mark Holliman as a freshman. Guys come in here and pitch as freshmen and make a difference."

One season comes to mind that has an opportunity to repeat itself. Ole Miss missed the postseason in 2002. Then the following season the Rebels went to an NCAA Regional at Rice and set the stage for a successful run the next several seasons.

"In 2003 we had all those guys who led the SEC in ERA," Bianco said. "Brae Wright, Mark Holliman, Eric Fowler, Anthony Cupps, Stephen Head and all those guys were just getting started here. All those guys were juniors in 2005 (when Ole Miss hosted its first Super Regional). There's something to be said about arms and pitching and being able to run guys out there. And we'll have that again."

After the season was over, it was announced hitting, outfield, and assistant recruiting coach Matt Mossberg, who also coached third base in games, would not return to the staff.

"We're going to hire a hitting coach," Bianco said of Mossberg's replacement. "What would serve us the best is a hitting coach. That's going to be the focus, to find somebody to come in and work with the offense."

Bianco is also looking for more than just someone to teach the Rebels how to better use a bat.

"The No. 1 thing is it's going to be someone who can bring some energy and confidence and leadership, qualities I think you need to be the hitting coach in the Southeastern Conference. That person's going to have a good system. I don't think it's important that it's exactly what we do now. I want to look at a lot of different people and philosophies and what other people are doing."

Offensively the Rebels weren't themselves this season either, or what people have gotten used to as far as an offensive Ole Miss ballclub under Bianco. The Rebels were still third in the SEC in home runs with 46 round-trippers.

"We ran a pretty physical team out there as far as size. That's one of the reasons our home run numbers were up and our stolen base numbers were down.

"We have to be better hitters. We were 149th in batting average in the country. With that, the most important stat is runs scored. That's how you win and lose. With the batting average comes confidence. The more hits you get, you play the game a little differently. We have to be better at being more consistent offensively."

Bianco continues his evaluation of the offense.

"The difference in a .282 batting average to say .302, is the belief you can get hits. And the confidence you can get hits helps when you need to get the hit with the guy in scoring position late in the game, those types of things. You have to be able to bunt, hit and run, do those things that are more prevalent since the new bat went into effect. That helps you late in the games.

Alex Yarbrough was part of the infield shift late in the season
Bruce Newman
"Another thing is on-base percentage, being able to walk, get hit by pitches, batting average, the more you can put runners on base, the more you have a shot, not just throughout the game but in those close games. We didn't do that very well."

The Rebels were more error-prone this season than normal. There were multiple error games throughout season, and on some occasions the Rebels were credited with four.

It wasn't just the infield. The tone was set early in the season. In the top of the first inning of the first game of the year vs. Wright State, Ole Miss players dropped two fly balls in the outfield.

Late in the season, Bianco did shift some infielders around, and that seemed to help. Alex Yarbrough from second to third; Blake Newalu from shortstop to second; Austin Anderson from third to shortstop; and Preston Overbey from earlier playing third to the outfield.

"We just had to do something. We couldn't leave it the way we were. We had a fighting chance up until the last out was made. We had to make a move, and it was a risk. But I thought we had no other choice."

Should he have made the move earlier?

"I don't know if it would have made that big of a difference if we would have done it earlier," Bianco said. "In the positions that it would have happened, I don't know that we necessarily lost a game because of that. I can remember a play that wasn't made that made it more difficult to win a game. But we still won that game.

"I try not to think like that, but we're all human. You think back woulda, coulda, shoulda. It's one of those things that you make the decisions when you feel they're right to be made. The defense in general was certainly a big factor in a handful of games."

Bianco maintains the program is already on its way back, that recruiting is going well, and the Rebels will again be a fixture in the postseason.

"We will win," he said. "We're focused and motivated, and not that we weren't before. Nobody is more disappointed in what happened than the people that work here. This is what we do. And we do it every single day. We've done it well for a long time.

"We've got to look at this as an opportunity to fix some things that were wrong in the program and move forward and be better for it. All we can do is look to the future and be better. We have a chance to improve as a program.

"It's good to look back in the rearview mirror and learn from the past. But you have to be looking through the windshield to stay on the road ahead. I don't know if I've ever been more focused. And I'm always motivated."

The Rebels open the 2012 season with a three-game series at TCU in Ft. Worth, Texas, next February.

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