A Closer Look

One might imagine sitting at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field and this happening. Or maybe at the University of Maryland.

The Terrapins were practicing baseball last week in three feet of snow. There are pictures of the team actually standing in the snow on the field with the base paths and pitcher's mound to home plate graded off for practice.

If the Red Sox or Cubs were having a press conference in their friendly confines this time of year, it would likely concern leaving town for spring training and sunshine.

As the Ole Miss baseball preseason press conference was held Monday in the Diamond Club atop Oxford-University Stadium, down below Swayze Field was being covered with falling snow. The Rebels have had three productive weeks of practice, but today they are obviously taking off.

Still Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, ever the optimist, said the forecast is better weather for the weekend as the Louisiana-Monroe Red Hawks invade Oxford for three games to open the season.

Junior left-hander Drew Pomeranz, the Rebel ace and one of the nation's finest, will take the mound for the season opener at 3 p.m. Friday. UM pitching coach Carl Lafferty announced the other two weekend starters are senior right-hander Aaron Barrett and junior right-hander Trent Rothlin.

"Aaron was a guy who started for us last year and didn't have the success he wanted," Lafferty said. "But he is physically gifted and had great stuff. This year you'll see a guy who has great stuff and who has learned how to pitch. He's been outstanding.

"Trent's a junior college transfer who pitched his first year at Clemson," Lafferty continued. "He's a guy with a little bit of a deceptive delivery. He's kind of a three-quarter arm action guy. His fast ball has some run and seek. He has a plus slider in the mid-70s to low 80s that he commands well. He's a guy we're very, very excited about."

The excitement is off the charts for Pomeranz, who stepped up so big in so many games last season.

"We're very proud of the progress and strides Drew has made," Lafferty said. "He's one of the most talented pitchers in the country. I've seen him mature quite a bit. He's got two years of experience in the Southeastern Conference."

But Lafferty said Pomeranz has gotten even better.

"Some of the biggest differences I see are his command, and not only his fastball command which has always been a plus pitch for him. Now he throws a 78 to 81 mile an hour knuckle curve. That's a very interesting breaking ball. His command with that has been much better, and that separates pitchers. The ability to throw your secondary stuff in the zone just makes catching up to his 94 mile an hour fast ball that much harder."

With Jake Morgan out of action for the season due to Tommy John surgery, David Goforth has been called on to step in to the role of closer.

"He threw a lot of innings last year in front of Jake Morgan, almost as a setup guy," Lafferty said of the third-year sophomore right-hander. "He has a tremendous fast ball and makeup on the mound. That's what you look for in a closer."

Pitching wasn't the only aspect of the team discussed today in the press conference. All assistants discussed their areas.

"We take a lot of pride in the infield. It's the only sport on earth that the defense controls the ball. It's a catch-throw game, and if you can't catch it and throw it, you won't have a lot of success at this level," said infield coach Rob Francis. "The last three weeks the guys have done a great job overall collectively getting better."

At first base is sophomore Matt Snyder. At shortstop is senior Kevin Mort. Second and third bases are a bit unsettled at this moment. Sophomore Mike Snyder would likely have started at third, but he had an appendectomy early last week and won't play this weekend. Senior Zach Miller would then have been at second.

Now as things stand, it may be Friday before the second and third base spots are announced for the series. In the mix are Miller, freshman Alex Yarbrough, junior Miles Hamblin, and even fourth-year junior Matt Smith, who is scheduled for right field, moving from first base. Junior Jordan King is also a candidate at one of the remaining infield spots.

Some comments from Francis:

On Yarbrough – "He's worked his tail off. He comes to practice early and stays late, simply to work on his defense. We're really excited about his ceiling here at Ole Miss, which is very high. He's versatile and can do a lot for us at either second, third, or shortstop."

On Hamblin – "A super athletic kid who also catches. He's gritty, tough. He's a gamer. What he's been able to do at third base has been impressive, because most of his work to this point has been as a catcher. It's been neat to see how he's handled it."

On King – "He has such a team-first mentality. We've moved him into a lot of different roles and he's had success. He's probably led the scrimmages lately with web gems. He's all over the field and made some great, very acrobatic plays for us."

Outfield coach Matt Mossberg said things look a little different in the outfield with the departure of veterans like Jordan Henry, Logan Power, Jeremy Travis, and Michael Hubbard.

"This year we have a few converted outfielders," he said. "Tim Ferguson, who was in infielder and one of the most athletic players on our roster, is now in center field. We're excited about that. Matt Smith, as has been mentioned, will be in right field. He actually came here as an outfielder."

Also in the outfield mix are returnees David Phillips and Taylor Hashman, as well as newcomer Tanner Mathis, a freshman who appears to be the team's leadoff hitter.

"Tanner Mathis is a kid who defensively is tremendous and will see time in left field and also could play center field if we needed him to," Mossberg said. "Jordan Henry was the dynamic sparkplug at the front of our lineup last year. Tanner was recruited to be that type of player, and he's comfortable in that role. We've been very pleased with him. He's gotten on base. He hits the ball to all fields and can steal bases. That's exciting."

Taylor Hightower, a returning sophomore, gets the nod at catcher. But Hamblin has also pushed for playing time and will get some.

"In the fall and the spring, Miles has been tremendous," Lafferty said. "He's very composed, understands the game, and has leadership qualities. He's a winner.

"And Taylor Hightower was highly touted out of high school and is tremendous defensively," Lafferty continued. "He's learned to switch hit, and that tells you a little bit about him. Learning to switch hit in the SEC as a freshman is not an easy thing to do. But his determination and his gifts physically allowed him to do that."

Lafferty said look for the Rebels to continue to be solid on the mound as always.

"This is Ole Miss. We always pitch very well and will continue to do that this year. We're excited with the opportunities for our guys."


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