Rebels open SEC baseball season at home

Ole Miss and Vanderbilt sport identical 11-6 records as they begin Southeastern Conference play in Oxford tonight at 6:30.

Baseball season starts in February. It always starts again in mid-March.

When Ole Miss and Vanderbilt play the first of their three-game set tonight at Oxford-University/Swayze Field, it will almost be like starting all over again.

It's the Southeastern Conference opener. Both teams have compiled an 11-6 record in non-conference action to date.

Both teams will be looking to get off to good starts in league play. For Ole Miss it may be even more important since it's at home, and the Rebels need to take advantage of that.

The Rebs needed some momentum heading into conference action. Better yet, on Tuesday night in Jonesboro, Ark., they needed a win after having lost three of their last four games. Leading 10-1, Arkansas State came back late, but the Rebels held on to win 10-8.

There has been a different spring in the steps of the Rebels the past couple of days. Two reasons for that. The win against the Indians and the start of SEC play.

"Every single game matters," said junior third baseman Chris Coghlan. "But it really is like a new season. Coming into the SEC season, everybody's 0-0. What we want to do is win the SEC overall. We're entering SEC play with a lot of confidence. We know we haven't played up to our capabilities throughout the season. But it's a new day and Friday is a different story."

Coghlan says the Rebels have come to accept a lot of things about themselves as a team 17 games into the campaign.

"We're talented but we're young, especially on the mound," he said. "The pitchers have learned so much this season. There are some outfielders who haven't played a lot out there before, and there are some people who haven't played with the infield before this year. And hitting too. We've had some new guys step up and even some of the older guys have had to learn their way through much of this season."

Coghlan has more to say about where the Rebels are at this point.

"I think most of our problems haven't been major, they're just the little things," said Coghlan, batting .318 with 12 RBI including five doubles and three triples but no home runs yet. "Just some base-running mistakes and mental stuff and routine plays, just not making them all. I don't think it's anything like we're not good at fielding or hitting or pitching. I just think there are the little things we need to correct and we'll be fine."

Senior right-handed pitcher Stoney Stone, solid in relief this season with a 2.25 ERA in eight appearances and a record of 1-0 in 12 innings, says he and the his teammates are ready for the second season to begin.

"Conference play just means more, it just feels different," Stone said. "We look at conference play as a totally new thing. The other games are important, obviously, but when the lights come on against Vanderbilt, we want to play our best game so far."

Stone, one of six pitchers used by the Rebels at Arkansas State Tuesday night, said there's no doubt winning that game was important heading into this weekend.

"We needed to win," said Stone, who only pitched the last two-thirds of the eighth inning against the Indians allowing no further damage after ASU had scored seven runs in the frame to close the gap from 10-1 to 10-8. "The game started out really well and I'll admit it got a little sloppy late. We didn't hang on, in my opinion. Better yet, we found a way to win. That was important."

Tonight's starter for the Rebels will again be senior LHP Tommy Baumgardner, the Friday night starter for all four of the Rebels' non-conference weekends so far.

Baumgardner hasn't been his best yet, only 2-2 on the season with a 3.80 ERA in 23.2 innings (26 hits, 13 runs, 10 earned runs, 11 walks, 18 strikeouts). But it's SEC time and he's ready.

"I know I have to be on top of my game," said Baumgardner, with wins against Saint Louis and Maine and losses against Illlinois-Chicago and UCLA. "It's conference time. This is the reason we play the game. It should be a great atmosphere with a lot of fans and excitement all weekend."

Baumgardner says he still believes he can improve, although so far he has been fairly happy with how he's pitched.

"I feel like velocity and stuff-wise, I'm at my best," he said. "Although I haven't really shown it, my arm has felt fine and also after I pitch and throughout the week. My recovery has been better and better. I feel comfortable on the mound. I just have to make better pitches throughout the course of the game to keep my team in it and recover better in certain situations. I have to know when to bear down at the right time and not give up that big pitch. I just have to step up and stay focused the whole time."

Baumgardner says he believes he is the same pitcher from the fall and preseason and that he can get the job done throughout the course of the SEC season.

"I had a good fall and good preseason," he said. "Maybe there are some questions raised about me now. But I know I can go out Friday and have a good game and get the team off to a good start for the weekend. Everybody on this team is ready to go out and prove that we're good again this year."

Vandy sends its SEC and National Pitcher of the Week to the mound tonight. Sophomore LHP David Price (1-2, 3.04 ERA, 26.2 innings, nine walks, 44 strikeouts) is set to pitch the Commodores into the league season.

Other Rebel starters are scheduled to be freshman RHP Cody Satterwhite on Saturday (3-0, 3.05 ERA, 20.2 innings, nine walks, 17 strikeouts) , and freshman RHP Lance Lynn on Sunday (1-1, 4.15 ERA, 17.1 innings, seven walks, 19 strikeouts).

For Vanderbilt, the Saturday starter is scheduled to be Matt Buschman (senior, RHP, 2-1, 3.46 ERA, 26 innings, nine walks, 20 strikeouts), and on Sunday Cody Crowell (sophomore, LHP, 1-0, 2.91 ERA, 21.2 innings, six walks, 13 strikeouts).

The Vanderbilt offense has been warming up over the last 10 games. The Commodores did not have a home run over the first seven games of the year, but since that time have belted 10, including at least one in the last four contests. As a team in the last 10 games, VU is batting .338 as a team with 10 homers and 76 runs scored with 10 or more hits in the last five games.

The Rebs feel good about their offense as well.

"We're coming off the best game that we've had offensively all year," said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco of the 10-run, 13-hit outburst in Jonesboro. "So that's exciting as we enter conference play. Yes, there have been games we had more runs and hits. But one through nine, up and down the lineup, that was the best we've been."

Bianco heads into his sixth SEC season as a head coach, all at Ole Miss. He says he knows the SEC games always feel like they mean more, and actually they do.

"This second season, if you want to call it that, is the most important," he said. "We've learned it's always more about how you finish than how you start. But we're looking to start things off right as well."

Gametimes, weather permitting, are 6:30 p.m. today, and 1:30 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.

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