Working on the Weekend

Ole Miss is looking for a few good men to replace Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers as weekend starters. One that returns and appears to have a spot already is Sam Smith.

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The junior right-hander is confident two weeks before the season begins at Stetson.

"I've been in the fire a few times. It's good to have that experience," said Smith, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder with 24 starts on the mound his first two seasons of college baseball. "I know what I'm getting into. That's good to have on my side."

Smith has more weekend starts than any returnee. Junior right-hander Chris Ellis (6-5, 205) started two weekends last season but fought an abdomen injury and is the projected first-game starter this year.

Junior college newcomer sophomore 6-foot, 185-pound left-hander Christian Trent appears to be the other pitcher in the mix for a weekend start, at least at this time.

Smith knows he has to perform and produce to stay in the rotation, if that's where he begins the season.

"I have to go out and compete every day," Smith said. "Chris Ellis is as talented as anybody I've seen pitch here. Christian Trent is going to surprise a lot of people. He's really good. There are others who can step in as well."

Smith has the experience, but he said the trio, plus others who might be in the mix, can get the job done.

"We may not be as experienced as we have been, but we've got the talent to do well," he said.

Smith, as all the players do, points to new strength and conditioning coach Ben Fleming as a key reason they all feel they're more prepared for this season. That goes for not only physical strength but also mental improvement. In other words, just being tougher.

"It's been good for us," Smith said. "All fall they preached toughness to us, and he's definitely instilled a lot of mental toughness in us. He's put us through some stuff I didn't think we'd get through at times. But we did and that's made us a better team."

Sam Smith
Bruce Newman

Smith said the key to remember as far as the increased toughness and upgrade in the physical aspect is that it should help the players pull out those few key wins that at times have slipped away; the ones that can make a difference over the course of a lengthy season.

"It's the little things. Winning the game in the ninth, grinding out games, maybe grinding out a double header, being able to play well when it's cold outside. Things like that. We've been through it all, and they've put us through some tough stuff. That will be on our side."

He said he's even changed his delivery up a bit.

"During the fall, Coach wanted me to drop my arm slot a little bit," he said. "I had a good two-seam with good run on it. But dropping my arm slot made it better, made it more of a pitch for me. It got hit more than it should have. So we tweaked my arm slot a little, and I can throw more fast balls now than I used to."

Smith has a fast ball, slider, changeup, and also a curve ball he uses every once in a while.

He said the Rebels expect to do well this season, and that they don't feel a sense of pressure as the season nears.

"We can't worry about all that. We have to go out there and play our hardest and the cards will fall where they may," he said. "Everyone's excited to get out there and play in a game. We've been beating each other all fall and the preseason. I don't get a sense of pressure. We're just going to go out there and play our hardest, and that's all you can ask, I believe."

Smith does have a hard time believing it's his third year in the program.

"It seems like yesterday I was a freshman," the Lake Charles, La., and Barbe High School alum said. "I feel like I just got here."

Ole Miss opens the season with three games at Stetson in Deland, Fla., Feb. 14-16.

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