Next month they play games. This month, the last week of January, they begin official preseason practice.
When Super Regional participant from last season East Carolina gets here the third weekend in February, we’ll all get our first competitive look at this young, talented Ole Miss team. I’m eager to see them perform, and I certainly don’t recall as many unknowns for a team - from the outfielders, to the starting rotation, to closer, catcher and other positions. We’ll begin to dissect that in the weeks ahead, and it will be fun to see it all progress together on the field.
I do think one of the more exciting aspects of this group is the improvement they should make as this season, and their careers, move forward. The consensus No. 1 ranked recruiting class that arrived in the summer will have several members that will help right away, some of them as starters and some as role players. The fall showed us that, and the preseason practices and early-season non-conference games will reveal that even more.
I like the leadership of this team. The two captains chosen by their teammates are two of the hardest-working, talented, yet different ones I’ve covered through the years. Take Tate Blackman. He may be as good an example of improving from one year to the next that we’ve seen in some time.
Remember his freshman season? Tate came in as one of those highly-decorated high school players we’ve seen enter the program. And he struggled. You could see it as you watched the games; we could sense the tension and uncertainty from him in our interviews. As a sophomore Blackman, through work ethic, coaching, confidence and more, became the player everyone said he could. Now he’s a co-captain in year three.
Colby Bortles, the other co-captain, is almost the opposite of Blackman. Although both hail from the central Florida area, they are different personalities, have different strengths and weaknesses, certainly different body types, and different approaches to things. Tate is a bit more vocal and talkative. His unique hair style, only revealed when he un-caps, changes from time to time and says something about his personality and confidence. What the veteran second baseman means to his teammates is they believe in him and his leadership. So they selected him as a captain.
Bortles, meanwhile, has fewer words to say, at least in interviews. He says enough and if you listen, as his teammates obviously do, what he says is important. So are his actions. A veteran of the most recent Ole Miss College World Series team, Bortles has worked to improve every season. When he took over at third base in 2015, after Austin Anderson departed in 2014, he surprised likely everyone but his coaches and teammates by having a stellar defensive season. A preseason All-American heading into this season, Bortles has lost weight and gotten in great shape as he tries to help lift his team back to Omaha his last time around.
There’s depth throughout, a lot of it youthful. Like at catcher. Who will replace Henri Lartigue? Maybe Cooper Johnson or Nick Fortes. Or Carson Klepzig or Thomas Dillard. Yeah, I don’t know either at this point. I do know that Johnson was considered the best defensive catcher in high school just last spring by many who evaluate such things. Fortes and Klepzig have program experience, having been here last year – Fortes now a sophomore and Klepzig a redshirt freshman. And who among us doesn’t feel like Dillard’s bat should be in the lineup somewhere (catcher? DH?), either immediately or fairly soon? The guy can hit it out of the park and almost to the square.
Who are the outfielders? What about shortstop? Closer? There are players aplenty for those positions, but who will be there early or late this season? Stay tuned as we take a look deeper into the roster later this month.
The schedule offers some interesting locales and games, some for you Rebel fans in those areas to catch. The first weekend in March is the Shriners Hospitals for Children Classic at the Astros ballpark in downtown Houston. The Rebels play Baylor, Texas Tech, and TCU that weekend.
On March 14 the opponent, Nicholls State, isn’t necessarily the draw. The location is. Ole Miss will take on the Colonels in the Milwaukee Brewers one-year-old AA ballpark across the street from the Beau Rivage in Biloxi. It’s good that Ole Miss is giving gulf coast Rebels a chance to see some live Ole Miss baseball.
The SEC series are Vandy, State, Alabama (Grove Bowl weekend), Missouri, and Texas A&M at home. On the road it’s Kentucky, LSU, Arkansas, Florida, and Auburn. The Double Decker weekend is while the Rebels are on the road playing the Razorbacks.
The annual game in downtown Memphis against the Tigers is March 21. The games in Pearl are set for April 4 against USM and April 25 against MSU. The game against the Golden Eagles in Hattiesburg is April 11.
More soon. A lot more. Baseball season is almost here.