By: Jeff Roberson
Colby Bortles and J.B. Woodman followed the path of other players from the area to Oxford. Their first season as freshmen they were important parts of a team that made it to the College World Series in Omaha. It was a cherished moment for Rebel players, coaches, fans, and a program that had a history with the CWS but not in four decades.
Last season, Woodman played center field following the departure from the World Series team of Auston Bousfield, another central Floridian. Bortles played everyday third base, replacing Austin Anderson, yet another central Floridian, from the season before.
There was success with another NCAA Tournament team in 2015, but a 0-2 Regional at UCLA left the Rebels wanting better things for this year’s team. Bortles and Woodman, veterans in potentially their final season of college baseball, hold some keys to whatever this team ultimately accomplishes.
“Things are going well,” said Bortles, one of the team’s power hitters who needs to produce double-digit home runs to help the cause. “We’re playing well this preseason, and we’re all ready to get going with the season.”
That begins in a week, on Friday, February 19, at 4 p.m. when Ole Miss welcomes Florida International University to Oxford for a three-game set.
Bortles showed some of the power he possesses earlier this month. There was some conversation among fans in the stands at a recent practice about the importance of Bortles’ long ball production. Clearly out of ear shot, Bortles then proceeded to blast one nearly 400 feet over the 390-foot center field wall, a mighty shot right out of the ballpark that would have lifted his team in a game and been a devastating moment for the opponent.
In this case, however, it was an intrasquad game. Still, in an instant, Bortles showed one of the reasons why he’s here and why so many other colleges coveted his services.
“We definitely have some guys who can hit it out,” Bortles said. “I think people will be surprised how many home runs we hit this year. There’s some power on this team.”
Ole Miss hit 36 round-trippers last season, and 16 of those were from Sikes Orvis, who is finished playing college baseball. Bortles and Woodman with seven each trailed Orvis’ 16.
The young players on the team that nobody has seen in an actual game yet have impressed Bortles.
“We have a good mix of young guys and older guys,” Bortles said. “There are a lot of new pitchers who will help us out this season. I think the young position players are really good as well.”
On the mound is where the Rebels may see the most help from newcomers. At the other positions, there are a lot of returnees. In addition to Bortles and Woodman, Errol Robinson is back for year three at shortstop, and he is predicted to be one of the nation’s best at that position this season and a high draft choice come June.
There’s Connor Cloyd and Cameron Dishon in the outfield as well as versatile second-year utility player Kyle Watson who can, and has, played outfield or infield. Tate Blackman returns for year two hoping for better things than happened for him in year one. Will Golsan, also a second-year Rebel, has been working extensively at first base and might land there in a week. Holt Perdzock, a key player in the run to Omaha in 2014, returns and can play a lot of positions. Behind the plate Henri Lartigue is back, as is Nic Perkins.
Some wondered if Bortles would be good enough to play third base prior to last season. He proved more than adequate, and heading into this season is projected to be one of the best at the position in the Southeastern Conference.
“I have a lot of confidence,” he said. “I’m way more confident than last year with a season under my belt. I know the coaches have a lot of confidence in me there, and that helps.”
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Woodman moved from right field in 2014 to center field last season. The UM outfield is a veteran unit.
“There’s a lot of depth out there,” said Woodman, a part of one of the team’s strengths for several years now, with players like Bousfield and Braxton Lee from two years ago and the returning players this season. “There are a lot of guys who can play there, a lot of speed, and good defense. I think it will be a team strength again this year.”
He’s trained and focused on some improvements in his own game to help the team in his third season.
“I’ve worked on being more effective at the plate,” Woodman said. “I’ve been looking at my approach some. I want to cut down on strikeouts.”
He had 59 Ks in 58 games last season.
Woodman has had a couple of years now to look over a team and see what works and what doesn’t, where there’s talent and depth and where it might be lacking. He likes what he sees this preseason.
“A lot of the new pitchers are really good,” he said. “And it’s good to have (projected starter in 2015 who was out with Tommy John surgery) Sean Johnson back. There’s a lot of new talent on the pitching staff, which is good.”
Woodman said while last season was a success in another Regional, this year they want to be more like 2014 than 2015.
“I think we have more confidence,” he said. “We believe we can beat anybody we play. We felt that way my freshman year. Playing with confidence is going to be big for this team. I think we’ve looked good (in preseason) on both sides of the ball – pitching and offense - and defense too.”
Woodman and Bortles have seen the highs and lows, and they’ve been major factors in Rebel baseball’s success for going on three seasons. Woodman said it’s time for more.
“We’ve roomed together the past three years. We may not say as much and be as vocal as some. We try to let our actions speak. We’re ready to go again.”