Baseball Rebs complete first week of fall practice

The Ole Miss baseball Rebels are one-fourth of the way through the four-week fall practice session.

Coach Mike Bianco's fifth team is once again using the fall to work on fundamentals, to get to know each other, and to focus on getting better each day.

"The kids have been working out for more than a month, and now it is good to get them all back on the field together," said Bianco, who has taken three of his four Rebel teams to the NCAA Tournament, including hosting an NCAA Regional for the first time in early June this year. "Fall practice is a chance for our kids to get acclimated to what we are doing. We'll do a lot of fundamental work, a lot of drills, and we'll get to know each other better. We'll know a lot more about ourselves after these four weeks."

What Bianco and staff know for sure already is that they must replace a few starting positions, namely shortstop, right field and left field.

Gone to graduation is four-year veteran starting shortstop Matt Tolbert. Also gone after his senior season was starting left fielder Charlie Babineaux. In right field, Seth Smith was drafted with one year of eligibility remaining and chose to go pro.

"We do have to basically replace the corner outfielders," Bianco said. "We have to replace our shortstop. Those are some priorities for us to look at this fall."

Sophomore Ryne Porter and freshman Zach Cozart are both in the mix at shortstop. Mark Wright, Brian Pettway, Miles Franklin, Alex Presley, Jon Jon Hancock, Jon Morgan Mims, newcomer Logan Power, and perhaps another player or two will be in the hunt for all the outfield spots. Of those, Presley has the most experience in the outfield, although only a sophomore.

The other areas of the infield are more set. At third base, although there is some competition from a couple more players, sophomore Chris Coghlan has to be way out front of the others for that spot. At second base, senior Cooper Osteen is back, although he actually has played a little at shortstop this week. Newcomer JoJo Tann of Jackson is also being looked at in the middle infield.

Stephen Head will be at first base, but when he pitches, returnee Peyton Farr and newcomer Brett Bukvich have been at first. Also newcomer C.J. Ketchum and Justin Henry, who redshirted last year, are possible first basemen or for other spots in the infield.

At catcher, senior Barry Gunther is back along with sophomore Justin Brashear as the Rebels are strong at that position.

During last Monday's Scout Day, pitchers who were draft eligible went first on the mound. There are some familiar names who will be pitching in the spring for the Rebs – Head, Mark Holliman, Anthony Cupps, Eric Fowler, Matt Maloney, Brian Pettway, and Taylor Fowler, all who could be drafted after this season. Other new pitchers will also be looked at long and hard this fall.

"It's a long time until the first game (Tues., Feb. 15 vs. Arkansas State in Oxford)," Bianco said. "It's hard to define the personality of a team this early. There's so much to learn. But you do look for team chemistry. You do begin to look for that personality. You want players to understand their roles better."

Probably the most discussed situation of the fall concerns a temporary fence that has been located just inside the permanent outfield fence. There is a good possibility that the current fence will be moved in before the season starts.

The present dimensions are 330 feet down the lines, 375 in the alleys, and 400 to center field. The ones being looked at currently are 330 down the lines as they are now, 360 in the gaps, and 390 to center field.

Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field plays the largest of any ballpark in the Soutneastern Conference, both dimension-wise and because of its locale. The field is basically in a hole, and the air is often heavy from a humidity standpoint and the fact that there is not much wind. The balls do not carry out as well. During the early part of the season which is still in winter, whatever wind blows is usually out of the north in the face of batters.

Of course, that goes for both Ole Miss and the opposing team. But Bianco sees merit for his program in moving the fence in, which will most likely happen after fall practice is over.

"It's something I've contemplated for four years," he said. "I'm convinced it is best for our program. That we will change our style of baseball is a misconception. It will not take away from the importance we have always placed on pitching and defense and bunting and moving runners over.

"Gorilla Ball was a phrase coined in the 1990s," he continued. "This is not about playing gorilla ball. Home runs are a good thing. But you can't win if you don't pitch and run the bases well and play defense. We understand that. For example South Carolina plays in the smallest ballpark in the league, and they hit a lot of home runs. But they also pitch very well too.

"What we don't want to have is the largest ballpark in the SEC that also plays like the largest park in the SEC. We don't want to have the smallest either. We want to be somewhere in the middle. But our philosophy or our system will not change. The bottom line is if we didn't think it would help us, we wouldn't do it."

The Rebels will give their smaller park and temporary fence its first "real games" test this weekend with intrasquad scrimmages Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.

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