A Closer Look

Some key players took the fall off for Ole Miss baseball, to either rest arms or to recover from injury. Getting an accurate assessment of this year's squad was made more difficult because of that.

Follow SpiritJeff on Twitter

"Overall I thought we had a great fall, and I say great because of the work ethic and because of the improvement that we saw from some of the returners and new guys over the six or seven weeks," said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco as his team heads into the last few weeks of the fall semester. "It's hard for us to evaluate how good we're going to be because (four top) players weren't there."

Junior right-handers Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers, the top two pitchers last season, are back but took the fall off to give their arms some time to recover and be ready for the 2013 season. Senior closer Brett Huber recovered from offseason elbow cleanup, and senior outfielder Tanner Mathis reinjured an abdominal oblique muscle this fall after initially injuring it in late summer.

"We've done that with guys in the past where a lot's going to be expected and we try not to push them," Bianco said of Wahl and Mayers, noting others like Drew Pomeranz, Lance Lynn, and Cody Satterwhite were among the past pitchers who had rested in the fall.

"Brett Huber had some bone chips removed from his elbow. He'd had surgery in high school," Bianco mentioned. "He had the nerve in his elbow moved (this past summer) and is throwing bullpens, looks great, and is 100 percent now.

"Tanner Mathis, the best offensive player returning, had a great summer in the Cape Cod League but at the end of the summer strained an oblique muscle," Bianco continued. "It's one that's hard to rehab and is very easy to reinjure. He was going great. About midway through the fall, we thought he was ready, we'd tested him, and we slowly put him back into play. But he reinjured it, so we sat him down until January. He should be fine. It's just an injury that takes time.

"So it's hard to evaluate where you are when you don't have those guys out there."

Bianco said there were plenty of players they did get to evaluate.

"It gives you an opportunity for other guys to step up and do well," he said. "We knew the identity of this team would be pitching. When you return Wahl and Mayers and Huber and then look at all those young guys who pitched last year – (Chris) Ellis, (Josh) Laxer, (Hawtin) Buchanan, (Aaron) Greenwood, (Tanner) Bailey, so many guys who pitched and had big important innings in SEC weekends and the SEC Tournament and a Regional, I think it bodes well for a good pitching staff, a very experienced pitching staff."

Chris Ellis
Bruce Newman

Earlyon in fall ball, Ellis had emerged from the pack as the most likely candidate for third starter, after Wahl and Mayers. That trend continued throughout the weeks of the session.

"I don't think there's any doubt," Bianco said of the sophomore right-hander being in position to be a weekend starter. "Looking at what he did last year, how much he improved over the summer, and what he's done this fall, if we were to start today he would start on Sunday. He's certainly the leader."

Bianco said Ellis has gotten better in every area since last season.

"He's got great stuff, but his stuff's improved," he said. "His command's improved. His confidence has improved. These are all things that are a natural progression from a freshman to a sophomore. He attacks the zone with more confidence with three pitches. He's got an outstanding changeup. We've always known he's had a big-time fastball and a breaking ball. He's a guy with the body and the velocity and a breaking ball to be dominant in our league."

But Bianco said nothing's a certainty except that they will pitch the ones that give the team the best opportunity to win games.

"I like competition. We're going to pitch the best three guys," he said of the weekend starters. "I don't necessarily know what order. We'll see what happens and how things fit into the weekend."

As for the overall fall, Bianco said he was pleased with many aspects of the six weeks of practice. And they continue to work as the semester winds down.

"We had a terrific fall," he said, mentioning that just because fall ball is over, the team doesn't stop preparing. "They're still doing some baseball stuff. They may not do it in the same setting or with coaches putting them through a practice schedule. But guys are going to always hit. They'll go home for Thanksgiving break or Christmas break, and they'll hit or they'll throw. That's who they are. That's what they do.

"There's conditioning. We're doing some speed and agility stuff. It's really a good time in the weight room when you want to build muscle, when you want to gain strength; this is probably the biggest and most important time. They're not on a baseball field two or three hours a day running around. So the guys that want to gain weight, the ones that want to put strength into their bodies, this is a great time for that."

This fall, the coaching staff added yoga workouts for the pitchers. A former player was the determining factor since he had found it to be advantageous to his major league pitching career.

"The pitchers are doing yoga twice a week," Bianco said of those sessions. "We do (yoga) with the pitchers, not the position players, although the position players probably could do it. But we opt for that 45 minute to an hour session for (the position players) to do more speed and agility stuff. We just started (yoga) this fall. We'd talked about it for years. With T.J. Beam coming onto the staff, he's certainly one that believes in it, and probably pushed us over the edge to do it. The pitchers seem to enjoy it."

Tanner Mathis
Bruce Newman

Bianco said it can help the pitchers during the actual games if they draw upon its intended purpose.

"Certainly there's a benefit of elongating the muscles, stretching, core strength, things you would want as an athlete, not just a pitcher but any athlete," he said. "Also one of the big components of yoga I think is breathing and controlling your breath and your body and staying focused. I think you learn that ability. Those are the things that are important when you're standing on the mound in front of 10,000 people trying to get an out. Can you control that, or does the moment get away from you? Some of the components of yoga that I was not aware of are going to benefit the players."

Bianco said the basics remain the same in baseball, and the changes come from advancement in several areas.

"There's a core and a basis of what you do, but we can't think that we have all the answers," he said of continued progress. "Through technology we're constantly figuring out the sport and how the game's changing and how athletes are changing, what we can do from recruiting to hitting to pitching to strength training. And motivation. I don't think people talked about motivational videos back in 1960. But now they do a lot. Everybody talks about them. High schools talk about them.

"I don't know if strength training was such a big deal (earlier). I know we did it when I played college baseball (in the late 1980s), but there wasn't an emphasis like there is now. One of the things I'm proud about in our program is we want to stay on the cutting edge. We want to continue to improve as a program. That will help develop the players, and I think we all benefit from that."

Bianco said pitching and defense will likely continue to be the most significant aspects of the college game, especially with the alterations to the bats a couple of years ago.

"The game has changed," he said. "In the 1990s, there were a lot more runs scored. Now there's rarely a game in double digits. Not that we want those games, but that's certainly not a problem these days. The question is can you fall behind by three runs and get back in the game?"

(Part II of the Fall Ball Wrapup on Wednesday.)

OM Spirit Top Stories