By Jeff Roberson
Entering his 16th season with the program he has built into one of the nation’s best and most consistent, Bianco introduced the 2016 Rebels along with some other really big news of the day.
Not only will the baseball season begin Friday afternoon, but an announcement Tuesday morning of facility improvements to the tune of $13 million had everyone associated with the program riding high.
“As I read the (press) release this morning at 9 o’clock, I started hearing beeping outside and saw a big crane in front of the stadium and got all excited,” Bianco said. “I thought, ‘(AD) Ross Bjork does not mess around. It’s 9:30 and there’s already a crane outside.’ Then director of operations Jake Scott said, ‘Coach, he’s just cleaning the windows of the stadium.”
Those improvements to the facility are mostly for player development, although there will be some areas that affect the fans in a positive way and that will be visible.
Mainly, though, Tuesday was to talk about the 2016 version of Ole Miss baseball, and it’s a team that has some veterans and some unknown parts.
“We showed our lack of depth on the mound last year, and we fixed that by signing 11 pitchers in the current recruiting class that’s on campus right now,” Bianco said. “I believe that’s the most we’ve ever signed in one recruiting class.”
One of those will start Saturday, and that’s junior righthander Chad Smith from Wallace State Community College in Alabama.
Veteran junior righthander Brady Bramlett, in his fourth season, will start Friday’s opener. On Sunday, junior righthander Sean Johnson, in the program last season but out with Tommy John surgery, will start.
Bianco then went through the lineup, position by position, although he said he would not have a batting order until Friday. Junior Colby Bortles is at third base, and junior Errol Robinson is at shortstop. Sophomore Tate Blackman is at second base, while sophomore Will Golsan is at first base. Behind the plate will be junior Henri Lartigue.
There are options in the outfield as well, and Bianco said there might be some shuffling out there from time to time to get some other players in the mix. It’s likely you’ll see senior Connor Cloyd in left, junior J.B. Woodman in center, and senior Cameron Dishon in right.
Some comments from Bianco:
On the team: “For the last three or four months I’ve been saying I feel like last year’s weaknesses may be this year’s strengths. Last year we returned a good group of kids that went to the College World Series in 2014. The truth of the matter is we returned three freshmen that were outstanding as freshmen but were in a totally different role. Now they’re juniors and we return seven of the starting nine. We’re as old and experienced (this year) as probably we’ve ever been as a position player group.”
On Bortles: “Last year he took over third base and played as well as anyone I can remember defensively at third base here and hit seven home runs.”
On Robinson: “Starts for the third straight year with a lot of preseason accolades, a preseason All-American. Was voted by the scouting directors of professional baseball as the No. 1 shortstop in the country.”
On Blackman: “He’s coming off a tough freshman year. A year ago up here we were talking about his preseason accolades, and it was a tough year for him. He’s swung it as well as anyone in the fall and early spring. We expect him to have a big year.”
On Golsan: “A little different than Sikes Orvis at first base. We’re excited to have him there. He’s athletic and can move around and play defense. He had a great season offensively last year.”
On Lartigue: “I think Henri’s ready to have a monster year. He had a great fall. He bats from both sides of the plate and can really throw it and handle the pitchers well.”
On Cloyd: “He was our leading hitter last year. He can really handle the bat from the left side. He’s a good runner.”
On Woodman: “J.B. was a freshman All-American a couple of years ago. People might think he didn’t have that good a year last year, but look at his stats and he hit seven home runs and is a super athlete out there. He’s probably played as consistently as any of the position players from the fall to right now.”
On Dishon: “A good year for us last year and stole around 20 bases. He’s got a shot to steal even more this year, possibly in that 30 range.”
On freshman D.J. Miller : “He’s one of those guys who led the team in the fall and so far this spring in hitting. I’m not sure he’ll start in the outfield, but he will get a start at DH or in the outfield this weekend.”
On Sean Johnson: “He was slated to be a weekend starter last year but went down with the elbow injury and had surgery. Almost a year out now he looks strong and is a great competitor. He’s earned the nod to go this Sunday as the starter.”
On the bullpen: “Wyatt Short is back as the closer. Will Stokes is in the bullpen and we feel very comfortable with him there. This team, with so many new names on the mound, we feel very good about the starters and the bullpen. We have new guys like freshman Andrew Lowe and junior college transfer David Parkinson and freshman James McArthur. These guys can be midweek starters or at the back end of the bullpen before Stokes and Short. Some other young guys are Dallas Woolfolk, Connor Green, and Andy Pagnozzi, and another who returns from injury and looks terrific is Brady Feigl.”
Bianco said, “One of the things we like about this team is how athletic we are. We can run, steal some bases, and that happens with an older team. My experience is with an older team of juniors and seniors you tend to run more, and that’s because the older players just play with more confidence. And I believe this team will really defend well.”
Bianco on Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field:
“There’s a new video board they just put in, one of the biggest in college baseball. There are ribbon boards over the concession stands that will help the fans in the outfield to keep up with the statistics. And as mentioned this morning in the release, the future of this stadium and Ole Miss baseball, we’re very excited about.
“I consider this stadium the best in college baseball already. But this upgrade is really centered around the student-athletes and their experience here with Ole Miss baseball – a new locker room, new training room, new players lounge, new players meeting room, new indoor batting cages, new indoor pitching tunnel. And (for the first time for baseball) our own weight room.
“There will be some seating options for our fans. We’ll have a dugout club behind home plate and bring the fans closer to the action and give them a club level experience much like (the Diamond Club). There will be some different seating options in the left field corner and enhance the terrace in left field.
“I’m really honored to have an administration and honored to have a fan base to have all this going on, along with the media who are all here today. Baseball is important here, and as the coach that makes me very proud that that many people care about baseball.”