Early Start

Chris Ellis was projected to be the third starter for Ole Miss as far back as sometime last fall. He had emerged and was pitching his way into the weekend.

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He started the first Sunday game against TCU. But he was already suffering from an abdominal muscle pull. When you're a pitcher, everything needs to be well. When it's painful to throw, you can't be effective.

Against the Horned Frogs that day, Ellis went four innings and actually got the win as the Rebels were victorious 5-2. But he wouldn't start again until the third weekend of the Southeastern Conference season at Florida. That, too, was on a Sunday, but the Rebels lost 4-0. Ellis, still not himself, hasn't started since.

Sam Smith stepped in and got all the other Sunday starts. He's done a solid job and given Ole Miss a chance each Sunday. Ellis, meanwhile, has made eight total appearances for the Rebels, now 30-12 overall and 10-8 in SEC play. He said he's healthy now and willing to do whatever it takes to help Ole Miss continue to win.

"I feel good. I'm just continuing to try to get back into things now that I'm 100 percent," said the sophomore right-hander. "Things have been going well and I haven't been hurting at all."

That's good for Ole Miss as April heads toward May and so much is still at stake.

"Chris is extremely talented and had such a great summer and fall," said Ole Miss assistant coach Carl Lafferty. "The ab injury was a setback. Anytime you injure your core, it's tough to go through pitching drills, keep a feel, all that kind of stuff. As soon as he was ready to pitch again, we've thrown him right back into the fire. He has Friday night stuff and continues to get better."

And while he's settled into a reliever role lately, that isn't necessarily where he'll stay even this season. There are always things that can potentially happen, and also postseason opportunities for starts.

"Like with any pitching staff things can change from week to week, depending on how guys throw and who has the hot hand, so to speak," Lafferty said. "Anything can happen for Chris. Is it out of the realm of possibility that Chris will start? Absolutely not. He will keep continuing to pitch and move forward."

Ellis being back is an important note for the Rebels as the season moves down the stretch. It's a staff that is talented and deep, and one more pitcher who was being counted on as a weekend starter being 100 percent can only mean good things moving forward.

"It's only getting stronger for us from here on," Ellis said.

Christian Helsel
File Photo

This weekend, beginning today at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU, Kentucky is in Oxford. The Wildcats enter the weekend series with an overall record of 24-16 and are 7-11 in SEC play. UK reached as high as No. 7 in the national rankings but has lost seven straight games and three consecutive series in SEC play.

Kentucky lost 3-2 at Western Kentucky in 18 innings on Tuesday night on a walk-off home run, a contest that ended after midnight. The Wildcats then bused back to Lexington in the early morning hours, then flew to Oxford Wednesday.

"Some people say we're catching them at a good time," said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco. "I don't know if there's ever a good time. You've got to be careful looking behind you. You've got to be careful looking too far ahead. You've got to stay in the moment and play your best baseball. Nobody wants to play 18 innings and not be on the right end of the scoreboard at the end of it. But I'm sure they'll be ready to play."

Bianco said one never knows when a game or a moment might turn a season in one direction or another. He's seen all kinds of scenarios in 16 seasons as a head coach and as a college assistant before that.

"I think you've got to be really careful to say hey they played 18 innings and they're going to be tired and it's a short week. We're playing on Thursday," he said. "Sometimes those are things that get people started. They've reached the valley and they're ready to come out of it.

"Obviously they've struggled some, and in this league that happens," he continued. "It happened to us. It's happened to other teams. They've had a couple of tough weekends back to back. But they're a club that reminds me of us a lot. Several of their key players have been in the league a few years."

Ole Miss did, in fact, go through some of those valleys this season. And with several weeks left, there's always the possibility that could happen again. But right now the Rebels have won six straight SEC games (sweeps of Alabama and Tennessee) and four straight games overall, including Tuesday night's impressive 11-1 showing at Arkansas State.

"I like where we are now. I think we're playing much better," Bianco said. "We're playing more relaxed but with more energy and confidence. And that's what you need to do."

Some weekend notes:

The Wildcats will send their regular weekend rotation of sophomore lefty A.J. Reed (2-5, 3.20 ERA) to the mound on Thursday, senior southpaw Jerad Grundy (5-4, 4.43 ERA) on Friday and junior left-hander Corey Littrell (4-3, 3.20 ERA) on Saturday.

Ole Miss will counter with ace junior right-hander Bobby Wahl (8-0, 1.22 ERA) – a star for the USA Collegiate National Team over the summer – on Thursday, junior righty Mike Mayers (2-4, 2.98 ERA) on Friday and sophomore right-hander Sam Smith (2-0, 3.49 ERA) on Saturday.

Junior shortstop Austin Anderson, bothered by a hamstring, is not full strength. He will likely play, but he's not able to run full speed.

Junior Preston Overbey continues to be bothered by shin splints. He should play but freshman Christian Helsel has stepped in and helped out at second base while Overbey has been hurting.

Game times this weekend are 6:30 p.m. both Thursday and Friday, and 2:15 p.m. Saturday. ESPNU is televising the Thursday game, while FSN/SportSouth is doing the Saturday game. Dave Neal and Kyle Peterson will deliver the game to the TV audience Thursday, while Dave Neal and Nick Belmonte will work the FSN/SportSouth game Saturday.

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