Blackman struggled to find his way that first year. He played in 39 games, starting 36. He started at second base on opening day of 2015. That season he only batted .197 and he had some field miscues that were just not who he was.
Of all the players on this year’s team, with some 28 freshmen and sophomores about to begin the new season, nobody more than Blackman can attest to what might be ahead – some success, sometimes failure, often disappointment, surely some loss of confidence, even questioning a long list of whatevers surrounding baseball and college – along with some good days as well. A real mixed bag is ahead for some. It happens every year.
Blackman stuck with it, got better in the summer and fall between his freshman and sophomore seasons, and stepped up as the player he was projected to be in college. Last season, just one year later, Blackman appeared to be himself again. He batted .322 and looked comfortable at second base, starting all 62 games his sophomore campaign.
His friend and teammate, fellow Rebel co-captain Colby Bortles, said it’s easy to see why Blackman has been a better player since that rookie season. Talent is one thing but there’s much more.
“His work ethic. I think he’s the hardest working guy on the team,” Bortles said. “He’s here before everybody else. He’s the guy who texts the younger guys and says ‘Let’s go hit. Let’s go field ground balls.’ He always invites everybody. His work ethic is the main reason he has become the player that he is. He just needed to understand he could be the player that he wanted to be. He finally felt comfortable.”
Blackman said he loves the role of being the older guy and mentoring the younger players, telling them his experiences, ups and downs, and what could lie ahead.
“I talk to them about how to handle the pressure,” the Floridian said. “When Grae (Kessinger) got awarded preseason SEC Freshman of the Year, he sent me a text, and I told him not to be a player that you’re not. Just do what got you here. Don’t go out and try to hit home runs or more doubles than you can. Just have good at-bats, put the barrel on the ball, and things will go the right way.”
Same goes for the talented Kessinger defensively, since he is the projected starting shortstop for Ole Miss on Friday when East Carolina comes to town. Blackman is looking forward to playing with Kessinger, although the middle infield duo of Blackman and Errol Robinson was highly successful for the Rebels the past two seasons.
“It will be a little different. I was always the one asking questions of (Errol). Now I have that role,” Blackman said. “Errol kept me calm. I’m going to try to stay calm for (Kessinger). He’s a great athlete, a great shortstop. He hit well but his defense is so good. His grandfather is (six-time major league all-star) Don Kessinger. He knows what to do over there and is more than ready.”
So is Blackman, now one of the veterans of an Ole Miss program that hasn’t won a NCAA Tournament game since he’s been here. After the Rebels were eliminated in Omaha in 2014, they have yet to post a NCAA postseason victory.
That will change, if Blackman and company have anything to say about it.
“Make that one big hit or one big play,” he said. “My freshman year (at UCLA) we just couldn’t hit. Last year 0-2 in our own Regional was a bummer. Making that extra play or getting that extra hit. That’s what this team has this year, more power, lot more speed, we can do things this year.”
Friday is almost here. There’s been the long wait since last June’s disappointment. Blackman said he and the team are ready.
“This past weekend we put up runs, like maybe 20 in one intrasquad game and 17 in another with a lot of home runs,” he said. “It’s good to see us hitting and the bats coming alive in the intrasquad games. Even our pitchers. They might give up two runs one inning, then come back and give up no runs. It’s good to see we’re doing well.”