By: Jeff Roberson
There are 30 first or second year players in the program. Currently there are 37 players total on the roster.
“It’s going well,” he said. “I guess what has stuck with me the most is how well we’ve swung it. Going in, you feel pretty good about the pitching in the sense that we return a lot of guys, some of them who played huge roles for us last year. And they’ll have to pitch in different roles this year. We’ve got to find a Friday night starter and put a weekend rotation together and so on. But a lot of those guys were here last year, and there is the recruiting class.
“You wonder how we’ll be offensively. And with (Tate) Blackman and (Colby) Bortles back, it’s always good when you return some guys in the middle. But we’ve gotten off to a good start this fall. A lot of good swings. Usually the hitters start off a little slow. Not so much (this fall). And the pitchers haven’t walked a ton or been in terrible counts. Kudos to the hitters. They’ve swung it well. They’ve been aggressive. They’ve been on time. Those are the things you don’t usually see immediately.”
CATCH IF YOU CAN
Catcher Henri Lartigue moved on from the program last summer after a successful college career.
One of the four players in the mix for the catcher position is freshman Cooper Johnson from Mundelein, Ill. Some publications and scouts rated him the top defensive catcher coming from high school last spring. He joins freshman Thomas Dillard, redshirt freshman Carson Klepzig, and sophomore Nick Fortes as potential replacements for Lartigue.
Cooper Johnson on the fall for the team: “It’s going awesome. These intrasquad games allow us to get on the field and play together as a team. It’s crazy to see how much we’ve already grown in just three or four weeks of intrasquad games. We’re looking like a college baseball team. Long way to go but I’m really excited about the progress we’ve made.”
Johnson on his fall: “Personally I think I’m seeing the ball really well right now. Coach (Mike) Clement been awesome for me. I came in and had some stuff I needed to work on, and he’s been there for me every day. Working with him every day has really helped. Right now I’m seeing the ball well, sticking with my approach and hitting the ball hard.”
Johnson on all the catchers: “Us four have gotten pretty close. We’re around each other so much, at practice, catching bullpens and all. We all know there’s competition, but there’s no heat around us four. But it’s definitely a challenge. There are very good catchers all working for one spot. I’m just trying not to do too much, but just do what I do.”
Bianco on the catchers: “I don’t know if we’ve ever had this much talent at that position since I’ve been here. We’ve obviously had great catchers and some All-Americans and Johnny Bench Award nominees and winners. But I don’t remember having four guys that are this talented. They’re young and you can tell we have to get better at that position. We have to be cleaner and more consistent back there.”
More from Bianco on the catchers: “(Cooper Johnson) has made some big strides working with Coach (Mike) Clement. Offensively he’s kind of transformed his swing in a month and looks like a different guy up there. Thomas (Dillard) has gotten off to a great start, which you hope for the freshmen. He’s swung it well, got some home runs, and at night as heavy as the humidity can be, he’s hit some balls that deserve to be home runs. He’s battled with two strikes and given us some good at-bats. Carson has had some good at-bats. All four of them have done well.”
Bianco on what ultimately separates a catcher to become the starter: “The biggest thing is who is going to be the best defender? Who is going to give us the best shot to win back there? If you want to rank it, defense comes first. Then who will help the lineup? Who makes you a better team when they’re in the lineup? Sometimes it’s power. Sometimes it’s quality at-bats. Sometimes it’s maybe base-running ability from that position. But it’s hard to be good without a guy who can defend there.”
ETHRIDGE IN THE MIX
One of the freshmen pitchers is Will Ethridge, a highly-recruited right-hander from Lilburn, Ga. Ethridge is in the mix to be a starter in 2017, and that is his goal.
“My approach this fall was to earn a job for the spring. I want to compete and do the best I can, and (the pitchers) push each other to perform at our best to get ready for the spring.
“So far I think I’m throwing pretty well. There've been times I’ve struggled, and I’ve been working on that the days I’m not pitching in games,” said Ethridge, who has pitched 15 innings in intrasquad action so far this fall. “It’s been fun out here with everyone playing together, and there’s a lot of competition going on between each other. Overall I think we’re doing well and forming a great bond.”
Ethridge, who has a four-seam fast ball and a two-seam fast ball, a slider, and a changeup, on what he’s worked on this fall to improve his pitching: “We’ve been focusing on some little mechanical corrections and occasionally a pitch every now and then. Overall I think I’ve been doing pretty well with my pitches.”
Ethridge on the Ole Miss hitters he is facing: “I’m seeing a lot of really good hitters. It just makes me perform at my best every time and not give up a pitch I shouldn’t give up. I’m just trying to perform at my best against some of the best hitters in the country here.”