Fall Ball In-depth

The 2015 edition of Ole Miss baseball is wrapping up fall ball this weekend, and for the first time in the Mike Bianco era it is building off a trip to the College World Series.

And while the team has gone about its business like all of them prior to this summer’s trip to Omaha, Bianco said there is an additional spring in their step knowing that they’ve been there. That’s especially from a leadership standpoint, which last season was so critical for the Rebels’ finish among college baseball’s final four teams.

“I think they’ve been pretty business-like,” Bianco said as the team finishes up its final two scrimmages this weekend, one Friday afternoon at 2:45 and one Saturday morning at 10 o’clock. “The teams are all different. It’s hard to have the same personality every year. Last year was different because we had so many four-year guys who had been in the program for so long. This year we have veterans like Sikes (Orvis) and (Scott) Weathersby and (Matt) Denny, guys who have been in program a while.”

But some “veterans” in baseball amount to having been in the program only one year. For the more talented ones who also get drafted, three years in college is about it.

“Then there are younger guys like (J.B.) Woodman and (Colby) Bortles and (Errol) Robinson that I think have been good leaders this fall,” Bianco said. “But they are only sophomores. Sometimes your stint here is very short, and you need those guys to show leadership. We’ve challenged those guys that you don’t have to be a senior to be a leader. We need those guys to do that, and they’ve done that this fall.”

As for the overall performance of the team this fall session since mid-September, Bianco said it’s like every fall – some good, some bad, and at times hard to tell because it is his team going against his team in every situation.

“It’s been a mixed bag,” he said. “The first two weeks we swung the bat really well. I was excited about that. But you wonder about the pitching at that point. I think the pitchers answered the bell the past three weeks."

“We’ve played solid defense. It’s been a pretty good fall with a lot of new faces. Some new infielders learning our system, and some new outfielders learning our system. Overall I’m pleased.”

And he reiterates that “one team” concept that is fall ball each year.

“Remember, we’re on both sides of the ball,” he said. “When you look at it, it’s 18 hitters instead of nine. You’re looking at pitchers on both sides of it.”

So who has stood out? Some familiar names, actually. And some new ones have stepped up.

“Christian Trent’s been terrific since the first game,” Bianco said.

The returning junior veteran led the pitching staff this fall with a stellar 0.60 ERA.

“Scott Weathersby’s given up only one earned run,” he said.

Weathersby also performed as you would expect on the mound, with a fall ERA of 0.75.

“(Wyatt) Short and (Matt) Denny have pitched really well,” Bianco said. “Denny’s been lights out the last two weeks. Sean Johnson, a junior college transfer, had a rough outing his first week. Since then he’s pitched really well. Other guys have had some big games like (Brady) Bramlett, (Jacob) Waguespack, and (Evan) Anderson where they continued to look better and show improvement from last year.”

There’s the new ball college baseball is using this season. It’s referred to as a minor league ball. It basically travels farther. Thus the Rebels have hit more home runs. Even the pitchers don’t seem to mind it all that much.

“I think everybody’s been happy with the effects of the ball,” Bianco said. “It’s not been anything crazy, but balls hit that look like they should get out of the park do so. You don’t have that batting practice where you go a week and don’t have a home run in BP."

This year there’s been a lot more of them. Last fall with a team that had some power, the Rebels hit 7 home runs. This fall, with a team with some power as well, they’ve hit 26.

Sam Smith, the veteran with as many innings logged as arguably any pitcher ever at Ole Miss heading into a fourth season, didn’t pitch this fall. He rested his arm.

So how have the pitchers handled things?

“I don’t know if it is anything you can quantify,” Bianco said of pitching with the new baseball. “If the ball travels further with less drag, meaning the seams are lower, then probably the pitchers should throw harder. I don’t necessarily think we’ve seen that. One of the worries was, would the breaking ball be as good. But we haven’t seen that affect, meaning I don’t think it’s affected the kids’ breaking balls.

“Our players have struck out a lot, maybe the highest strike out to walk ratio that we’ve ever had here in the fall from a pitching staff. So that’s good and bad. Good for the pitchers. Not so good for our hitters. So we’ve certainly seen the effect on offense, and certainly from home runs.”

From a hitter’s standpoint, it’s a combination of things. And the success has been there again.

“A lot of it is the ball, but we can also be physical,” he said, mentioning a second consecutive school year in the Ben Fleming strength and conditioning program. “When you look at it, we’ve got (Sikes) Orvis and (Colby) Bortles and (freshman Joe) Wainhouse and (J.B.) Woodman and some other guys throughout the lineup.)

Here are some more random thoughts and comments from Bianco:

On some selected players: “Bortles has had a great fall and so has Orvis. (Freshman Tate) Blackman was having a great fall until he broke his hand (two weeks ago). Blackman was stealing second, dove in, and his hand got caught on the ground and kind of rolled over. He fractured one of those bones in his hand. He will be out for about six weeks. So basically he won’t do much baseball until after Thanksgiving. But he will be fine for the season. (Freshman) Kyle Watson has three home runs. I certainly think Tate Blackman will be in the mix either at second or third. I thought he played solid shortstop as well. So has Kyle Watson, so both can play as a freshmen. Kyle can play short, center field, anywhere. Super athlete, great runner, good arm, can do it all. And (freshman) Will Golsan. I’m really excited with all three of those guys. You recruit shortstops because they’re the best athletes, and also, besides the catcher, they might be the most important position on the field defensively. All three of those guys have been terrific rotating at second and short. We haven’t moved any of them to third base, but that will happen in the spring. When we get to January, we’ll let some of them get some reps at third base as well.”

On Bortles at third base this fall: “Bortles has been terrific at third base. Really impressed. He continues to improve there. He’s had a great fall offensively. Defensively he’s been really solid. He’s improved a lot in the past year defensively.”

On sophomore pitcher Brady Bramlett’s return from shoulder surgery and rehab: “He’s done well. He’s given up three home runs. He’s got a little higher ERA than what he would like. But he’s struck out 16 guys. He’s probably given up too many walks. But he looks strong and healthy, which is the biggest thing. He just needs to get a little more consistent with his fastball command, a little more consistent with his slider. He drops his arm a little bit, and his slider is a little inconsistent right now. But every weekend he comes out throws hard and seems healthy, and that’s good news for us.”

On the outfield: “(Juco junior) Matt Martin had a good weekend (two weeks ago). (Juco junior) Connor Cloyd has played well. (Juco junior) Josh Watkins has shown at times that he can do it. Same with Cameron Dishon. I don’t know if we’re any further along on who will play. The good news is we have some depth and we’re going to have some choices. And that’s good. Besides J.B. Woodman, Dishon is the veteran, and he would have a shot to contribute out there along with the others."

On the catchers: “It’s really been a tossup between (Henri) Lartigue and (Austin) Knight. I think Lartigue offensively has played a little better than Austin. But defensively Austin’s played a little better than Lartigue. So it’s kind of been a tossup. They’ve been done well enough to earn the spot. If we were to start today, I’d probably catch both of them.”

Some final tidbits: Errol Robinson has seven stolen bases. Sikes Orvis is batting .375 this fall to lead the offense. Will Stokes, a freshman right-hander, has a ERA under 2.00. Bortles has six home runs and leads the team in RBI with 14. Tate Blackman was battling .360 before his injury. Juco junior right-handed pitcher Sean Johnson has a 2.30 ERA. Freshman Joe Wainhouse has three home runs.

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