Diamond Rebs Face Weekend With No. 1 'Dores

The SEC slate produces possible speed bumps every time out, but No. 14 Ole Miss (14-5) gets the toughest of tests on this year's opening weekend as the Rebels travel to Vanderbilt (19-0) for a three-game date with the top-ranked and undefeated Commodores.

Ole Miss' hitting has come around of late, and those solid swings will need to continue against a dominant Vandy rotation that features preseason national pitcher of the year David Price (4-0). The junior left-hander is unbeaten and is coming off a 16-strikeout complete game performance against Illinois-Chicago.

The Rebels will counter with their own ace on Friday night in right-hander Will Kline (3-0). The junior is also unbeaten and is geared up for the challenge that waits in Nashville but understands and respects the Commodore talent.

"It'll be tough because they're the No. 1 team in the country for a reason," Kline said. "They haven't lost a game all year and they've only had a couple of close games. They're a great ballclub. They have a lot of guys back from last year plus some new guys that can play. It will be Ole Miss and Vanderbilt playing each other in a heated Friday night SEC battle to start the season."

Low-scoring affairs are to be expected all weekend due to the potent pitching from both sides. Ole Miss boasts a tremendous 2.41 team ERA that is better than Vanderbilt's 2.58 team ERA. Price has received three national pitcher of the week honors, but Kline sports a lower ERA (1.68 to 2.52) and is only one win behind.

Head coach Mike Bianco realizes the magnitude of the SEC opener and thinks Kline could receive more notoriety after Friday.

"The potential is there for this to be one of the marquee matchups all year," Bianco said. "David has the numbers and accolades and will possibly be the No. 1 pick in the draft this June. Will doesn't bring as much of that high profile but I think he soon will. He's not under the radar. The scouts already know him, but with each outing people are starting to realize what kind of pitcher Will is."

Rounding out the weekend hurlers are Lance Lynn (1-2), who is looking to rebound from his worst outing of the year, while Brett Bukvich (3-1) will cap the series on Sunday. Vanderbilt will counter with a pair of right-handers in Nick Christiani (4-0) and Brett Jacobson (4-0) respectively.

All-America candidate Pedro Alvarez is the offensive superstar for Vandy with a .415 batting average. The third baseman is solid all the way around and teamed with Ole Miss shortstop Zack Cozart on Team USA last summer. Alvarez is one of 12 Commodores that are currently hitting above a .300 clip.

Even with the potent pitching, Bianco understands that offense will be needed in order to get the best of Vandy this weekend. The Rebel sticks seem to be hitting their stride despite being lackluster for a portion of the young season.

"Hitting is ultra important," Bianco said. "When you're talking about the Southeastern Conference, you just can't win in this league just because you pitch. You have to be able to score. We knew it was in us.

"You just don't want to lose too many games trying to figure it out. We've lost a few games just because of a lack of offense, but that's going to happen. You'll lose some games for different reasons, maybe it's hitting, maybe it's pitching, maybe it's errors. But it is nice to see that it looks like we're on our way to getting better, especially offensively."

Junior Justin Henry is the most locked in Rebel headed into SEC play with an average over .400 and benefiting from the play of his younger brother Jordan just ahead of him in the order. A lineup switch has generated offense the past few games due to both Henry brothers using their speed and contact hitting. The recent offensive resurgence came after a self-analysis by the coaching staff.

"Offensively it usually takes a little longer to get going," Bianco said. "A couple of weeks ago we started re-addressing what we do offensively. Sometimes over time we as coaches tend to veer from what we do and not even knowingly doing it; look at an at-bat and say, that's not us. That's not what we do.

"So we addressed certain at-bats and what guys were thinking and their approaches at the plate. Subsequently we started getting some better at-bats, and eventually the hits come, and with the hits come extra base hits. We got off to a slow start, and I think we lost some confidence that we are hopefully getting over."

The weekend series between the two nationally ranked teams begins Friday at 7 p.m. and continues Saturday at 2 p.m. Sunday's finale is at 1 p.m.

While the main attraction is Friday night, the team who is able to take the series will undoubtedly be a leg up in the race for the conference title due to setting the tone on opening weekend.

"They're playing the best baseball in the country," Justin Henry said. "They're impressive, but if we play like we have lately, pitch well, hit well, and play solid defense, then we'll have a chance to win."

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