Working Toward Spring

Gone are pitchers Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers along with catcher Stuart Turner. That alone says there's work to be done and spots to fill as fall baseball continues.

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"We have so many new faces," said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco. "When you look out there, over half the guys are new. Lot of new pitchers. Lot of new position players."

The first two weekends of fall ball intrasquads have been productive.

"It's been a really good two weeks," Bianco said. "The energy and effort have been fantastic. In general the first weekend the pitchers dominated. The hitters really answered last weekend."

First-year strength and conditioning Coach Ben Fleming, arriving in June from Kansas State, has had an impact this summer and early fall.

"Ben has really pushed them, more than we ever have at this point," Bianco said. "It's what we were looking for. It's one of the reasons that when we were looking for a new strength and conditioning coach, we wanted somebody that would give us more than just a workout plan. We wanted somebody that would build that camaraderie, that mental toughness, the physical toughness. He certainly has done that. He started in the summer, and it's carried over into the fall.

"What they do and how hard they work, and to watch them get after it on the field, it's neat. Pleasantly surprised with that, how the new guys have bought in and pushed themselves."

Fall ball is filled with player evaluations and also teaching. It's like spring football for baseball.

"You want to get everything in. It's team stuff in fall ball," Bianco said. "We go over all the bunt defenses, first and third defense, first and third offense, situations, and that kind of stuff. But also evaluations. Pitchers actually throwing to hitters, and hitters actually hit against pitchers. Watch a guy play shortstop or centerfield over the course of seven weeks, and we can just get a better feel of where we are."

There are some older returning veterans that will help anchor leadership roles.

"Austin Anderson, Will Allen, Preston Overbey, and guys like Auston Bousfield who has just about played every game since he's been here," Bianco said. "Some of those guys it's the first time they've been in that situation. Will's kind of been a leader throughout. Guys like Preston and Austin, maybe they had some of that responsibility last year since they were such a big part of the team, they're really ready to lead. A lot of times leaders emerge. You're hopeful it's not just coming from one guy or one area."

Bianco said Fleming has been an advocate for developing leaders in his workouts this summer and fall.

"Ben's stressed in his workouts and in different competitions they've done, that they find guys to step up and lead and hold themselves accountable for their teammates. It's hard to say who is going to be the leader. Those are things that emerge but certainly it's a big part of it."

Bianco said Anderson is one who stepped up his game last season when he had the opportunity, and that's what a coach likes to see.

"I thought he had a great yet. Very solid at shortstop. He'll make a great play but the reason you really like him is he always makes the routine play. You need that at shortstop. You don't necessarily need a guy that's got all the flash. You need a guy that's going to make plays.

"He's also a kid that batted in the middle of our lineup most of the year. That's good to have, the three hole or two hole guy returning and is a force there. His batting average was low when he platooned a lot. Last year he came into his own offensively."

There's more talent and depth than in a while, and Bianco said that has the coaches upbeat.

"One of the things that's exciting for coaches and hopefully players is all the depth and all the competition and possibilities," he said. "There is a lot of competition, There could be four shortstops standing out there with Austin Anderson, Kyle Toth (junior, Yavapai CC, Arizona), Errol Robinson (freshman, Boyds, Md.), and Brantley Bell (freshman, Arizona – father is hitting coach for Pittsburgh Pirates).

Austin Knight
Bruce Newman

"All of them could play different positions. Also at third you've got Preston Overbey and Colby Bortles (freshman, Oviedo, Fla.). They can all switch positions. Dalton Dulin (freshman, Memphis, son of Tim Dulin of Dulin's Sports Academy) is a second baseman. John Gatlin is back from injury there as well."

However, Gatlin is currently out of action with a recurrence of his foot problem from last year. He's in a boot this week and is missing some fall ball time.

Bianco likes the fact that there are so many left-handed pitchers now, when a couple of years ago there were basically none.

"Now we have like eight left-handers now. And I think this team has a lot of depth sprinkled throughout. Look at the outfield, where you've got Bousfield and Will Jamison returning. There's Braxton Lee and J.B. Woodman and Cameron Dishon and Holt Perdzock. You've got a lot of competition, true competition, out there."

But back to the original question. What about losing Turner, Wahl, and Mayers after their junior years?

"You don't fill certain people's shoes. You replace them and the guy you replace them with may not be as good as the guy who was there," Bianco said. "But hopefully you're better at other positions. Ultimately it's how good your team is. It's hard to fill the shoes of the best catcher in the country in Stuart Turner.

"The good news is it's not a new face that has to do that. Will Allen caught for us two years ago and is now better. Austin Knight, who was his backup two years ago, is back and is a lot better. We've got a really good freshman back there in Henry Lartigue (Southaven High). So is anybody as good as Stuart Turner? No. Not now anyway. But can they play that position and play it well? We believe so."

Bianco said they aren't the only ones who are gone, but others are as well. And others that remain will step up.

"When people look at it and are curious about certain areas, one will be catcher and the other will be a lot of roles to be filled on the mound," he said. "Gone are not just Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers, but also Brett Huber and Tanner Bailey.

"When you look at filling those rules, you look at a guy like Chris Ellis, who had an early injury last year and never got on track. He pitched great this summer. He's arguably none of the most talented guys in the Southeastern Conference. He's certainly as talented as anybody we've had. He's just got to go out and do it.

"There's Sam Smith who pitched in the SEC last year. So we do return a SEC starter. Sam always gave us an opportunity to win. Aaron Greenwood had a tremendous year, and Matt Denny had a terrific summer and is ready to take another step. He did well and has shown some great leadership already this year."

A couple of pitchers who will be counted on are not throwing presently.

"Jacob Waguespack who had some bone chips removed this year, we're really excited about him being 100 percent. He's got so much talent," Bianco said. "Ellis and Waguespack won't pitch early in the fall. They're on a throwing program to pitch later in the fall. Ellis needed a break because he pitched a lot in the spring and summer.

And the pitchers who are throwing have done well so far.

"Evan Anderson (freshman left-hander) hasn't given up a earned run yet this fall. He's gotten off to a good start." Bianco said. "Christian Trent (sophomore LHP, Delgado CC, New Orleans), Matt Denny, Scott Ashford, Reed Evans (freshman RHP, Ridgeland) – all those guys have done well and given up one run total. That's through about four or five innings each.

"Preston Tarkington (sophomore, RHP, Crowder College) has looked really sharp. Hawtin Buchanan has pitched really well. Of the returning pitchers, probably Buchanan and Denny have looked the best."

That's not everyone, and Bianco said the roster has a lot who will contribute, both pitchers and position players.

"There are some other guys, some new guys, and we'll see how it all turns out. There's a lot of depth and we're excited."

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