Will Ethridge (Petre Thomas)

Ole Miss is set to open SEC play with a three-game series against Vanderbilt this weekend

If pitching and defense win championships, then Ole Miss baseball is potentially on its way there. But it’s still early and Southeastern Conference play begins tonight as Vanderbilt arrives for baseball.

Two of the winningest programs in the country this century meet three times in what has become the past decade and a half more than just a set of baseball games. There’s normally some major postseason activity at the end of seasons for these two.

Look no further back than 2014 when Ole Miss finished third at the College World Series and Vandy won it all.

The Commodores enter this weekend’s set with a not necessarily stellar 12-6 record. Ole Miss is 12-5 and has gone 5-5 after a 7-0 start, but it’s been shutout pitching five times in its last six games that has folks buzzing. The strength of the team this year was likely to be the depth and the talent on the pitching staff. That’s proven to be the case.

The veterans have pitched well, but the newcomers have been equally special. Will Ethridge, the tall, talented true freshman right-hander, is the scheduled starter Sunday for the 3 p.m. nationally-televised game on the SEC Network. He’s in the lineup because veteran sophomore right-hander James McArthur is still sidelined as he works his way back from some arm soreness.

Will Ethridge (Petre Thomas)

Ethridge will obviously be on his biggest stage ever. From all indications in his prior four appearances and two starts, the Georgian is ready for an SEC start. In his last outing on March 8 against Georgia State, he threw a career-high 7.2 innings without giving up a run and tying his personal best of 10 strikeouts. He retired the first 17 hitters he faced and did not issue a walk.

Ethridge is but one of the talented young arms on the Rebel roster. There are plenty of others, and that is a major reason Ole Miss has a chance at something special this year.

The offense seems to be coming around a little more lately. Five runs and ten hits in a 5-0 win at Biloxi over Nicholls State showed improvement. Now to make some offensive noise in the league starting with the Commodores. 

Some info from Ole Miss athletics media relations on the UM pitchers and after that the Vanderbilt Commodores.

The four consecutive current shutouts are the most by the Ole Miss pitching staff since 2004, the only other time it has happened in school history. The Rebels have held opponents to only two runs over the past six games, the fewest runs surrendered during any six-game stretch in program history. Naturally, it all starts with pitching. In 56.0 innings, the pitching staff has posted a 0.32 ERA with five shutouts. Opponents have been limited to a .135 team batting average and have struck out 66 times. Moreover, six Ole Miss starting pitchers have not given up a run in 43.2 frames. During the streak, Rebel starters have allowed only 25 hits combined while issuing just 13 walks and racking up 61 strikeouts.

Vanderbilt enters SEC Opening Weekend with a 12-6 record following Tuesday’s 8-1 win over Western Kentucky. The midweek matchup ended a 15-game homestand for Vanderbilt. The Commodores have relied on their pitching to start the season, which ranks towards the top of the SEC in nearly every statistical category. Starting pitchers Patrick Raby and Drake Fellows went through the first four weeks of the year with sub-2.00 earned run averages; Raby’s was 1.40 over his start, while Fellows is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Week and holds a 1.00 ERA as a weekend starter. Outfielder Jeren Kendall is a Commodore to watch out for after being named a Preseason All-American entering the 2017 campaign. He paces the Commodores in runs scored (16) and home runs (4). However, Julian Infante is leading the team at the plate with a .373 batting average.

Here are the probable pitching matchups for the weekend:

Vanderbilt - Kyle Wright, Jr., RHP, 0-2, 5.40 ERA, 20.0 IP

Ole Miss - David Parkinson, Jr., LHP, 3-1, 2.52 ERA, 25.0 IP

Vanderbilt - Patrick Raby, So., LHP, 2-2, 1.40 ERA, 25.2 IP

Ole Miss - Brady Feigl, R-So., RHP, 2-1, 3.91 ERA, 23.0 IP

Vanderbilt - Drake Fellows, Fr., RHP, 3-0, 1.00 ERA, 27.0 IP

Ole Miss - Will Ethridge, Fr., RHP, 1-0, 1.15 ERA, 15.2 IP

Ole Miss pitcher David Parkinson (Photo credit: Petre Thomas)

Quotable

Ole Miss second baseman Tate Blackman

On the offense: “We had ten hits and five runs Tuesday. Sunday we had nine hits but one run. It’s about getting that timely hit when we need it. Just seeing our offense come back alive, we’ve been working on some of our approach (aspects).” On the lack of offense recently: “Never seen a team go from hitting .500 as a team and dropping .200 points. But it’s baseball, and it can happen overnight. Just to bounce back and see how we’ve handled it has been good.” On the pitchers: “They were very hard to hit in the fall and spring. We knew they were going to be the best in the league. To see them hold guys to zero runs is impressive to watch and play defense behind. Defense has been good on top of pitching, if we can get our bats going, which we will, we’ll be a special group.” On Will Ethridge: “He deserves to start. Both starts he’s pitched he’s done tremendous. He’s a mature young guy, very confident. You can tell by his body language he’s not scared. He wanted to be a weekend guy and he got his opportunity. I guarantee he’s going to make the most of it and do just fine.”

Ole Miss pitcher David Parkinson

On Will Ethridge: “He’s incredibly mature for his age. His composure on the mound has been incredible. He fills up the zone more than anybody I’ve seen. He hits spots, his slider’s sharp, and he’s got good velo. He will be fun to watch.” On SEC play: “The energy in SEC play is incredible. That’s one thing that changes (when you enter league play). On the pitching staff’s success through four weeks of the season: “All the freshmen and transfers came in, and we knew we had a talented staff. Luckily we figured it out earlier than later. I knew at some point we’d be like this, and I just had no clue it would be this early, and it’s impressive.”

Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco

On James McArthur: “He’s gotten better but he still feels a little bit in the fore arm. We don’t want to not go all the way and give him every opportunity to get rid of it. No setback. No more concern. He felt good throwing (Thursday). The recovery from it hasn’t gone as quickly as we thought it would.” On the pitchers: “We challenged them when we got back from Houston that we have to be better on the mound. More dominant. We wouldn’t have thought this would be the response, what's happened over the last six games. When you’re not swinging there’s more on the pitchers to do their job. You can still win some of those games you don’t score a lot of runs. Offense comes and goes, but pitching and defense are usually consistent, good or bad. I’m glad we’ve recovered (on the mound) from that.”  On the team’s play now: “I thought Tuesday at Biloxi was collectively our best game of the year. We are swinging it better and feeling better about ourselves. It comes and goes, and hopefully it will stay with us.”

Notable

Ole Miss will honor a pair of its best teams as part of Alumni Weekend. Friday night, the 1977 SEC championship team will be recognized on the field prior to the start of the series. The 1977 Rebels produced a then-school record 39 wins on their way to capturing the conference regular season crown as well as a title in the first ever SEC Tournament. On Saturday, the 1972 squad will be honored before the game. With a 28-16 record, the 1972 Ole Miss baseball team won the SEC before advancing to the fourth College World Series in school history. Both teams were coached by the legendary Jake Gibbs, who won 485 games in his 19 seasons at the helm of the Ole Miss baseball program.


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