Underway At Swayze

It's baseball season. Yes, football recruiting is in full swing and heading down the home stretch. And basketball season is on everybody's mind.

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But the diamond Rebels began official practice this past weekend to push toward the season opening series with TCU in Oxford Feb. 15-17.

Coach Mike Bianco said the weather cooperated, and it was a good start to team practices for the season.

"It went well," he said as the Rebels return two of the three weekend starters – Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers – as well as a host of veteran players both infield and outfield, but only four seniors - Tanner Mathis, Brett Huber, Andrew Mistone, and John Gatlin.

"We had a little bit of everything this weekend," Bianco continued. "We pitched well at times, and certain guys pitched pretty well. I thought we swung it well for the first weekend, considering the pitchers they were facing. I thought defensively, especially on Friday, we played well. When you're scrimmaging against yourself, somebody's doing well and somebody's not. But this had a little bit of everything. I thought it was a good weekend."

Bianco said the next few weeks preparing for the Horned Frogs is important. But he said the four weeks after that as the team gets ready for Southeastern Conference play, opening at Arkansas, are equally important for the team, if not more, to answer some questions.

"It's been the same as we've talked about before, and that's second base, and also first base and DH," he said for starters.

Will Allen, who bats right, or Sikes Orvis, who bats left, are in the mix to DH and also play first. Right-hander Preston Overbey can also play first or DH.

At second base Gatlin has emerged as a contender, along with Lance Wilson. Christian Helsel and Luke Gibbs are also figuring in potentially at second.

Those positions are all open because of the departure from last season of offensive threats Alex Yarbrough at second base, Matt Snyder at first base, and Zach Kirksey, who DH'ed and also played some outfield.

Another question seemingly answered in the fall was who the third starter might be, after Wahl and Mayers. Chris Ellis, another righty, emerged and has held onto the spot. And unless he finds the going rough, he will have the spot on Sunday, Feb. 17.

"These are important questions, but I don't think they're super critical to have answered by Feb. 15," Bianco said. "As much as we want to be prepared for Feb. 15, I think it's more important to have the right three guys pitching in the first weekend against Arkansas and your best lineup.

"There are a lot changes throughout the year, and that's the nature of baseball," he continued. "So right now the goal is to try to have it figured out by Feb. 15, but if you ask then, the answer will be let's be sure to get it figured out by the first conference game."

So what will this year's version of Ole Miss baseball actually be about? The team is coming off another successful season for the program, advancing to a NCAA Regional final for the sixth time in the past eight seasons. They're ranked as high as 13th (Baseball America) so far and are in all the polls.

Every team has questions that need to be answered, and we addressed some already. Some others that come to mind are:

* Will Preston Overbey, the talented third-year player who came in with all-star hype and is one of the most athletic players on the team, be able to find a home on the field somewhere and excel?

* Will catcher Stuart Turner, who most fans have not seen yet, pick up where he left off in the fall, getting rave reviews for his arm and his accuracy behind the plate?

* Will Ellis continue to master the mound as he did in the fall, remaining in that third spot, going on the assumption that Wahl and Mayers are to remain in the Nos. 1 and 2 spots?

* What type year will Brett Huber have as the closer after surgery and rehab?

* Since the pitching will likely be the forte' for this ballclub, can the offense produce enough game in and game out to make this team a contender?

* The team has more left-handed pitchers on the roster. Will Austin Blunt, Jeremy Massie, Scott Ashford, and Matt Denny give the staff that left-handed lift they need?

* Will the right side of the infield be as strong defensively as it was last season when Alex Yarbrough and Matt Snyder combined for four errors total in 63 games?

* What about Andrew Mistone at third base? He was stellar there last season. Will that type play continue as a senior?

* The outfield is deep and should be a team strength, anchored by LF Tanner Mathis and CF Auston Bousfield. How good can they be?

* There are more but enough for now. Stay tuned.

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