Bianco: 'It's An Exciting Time'

Ole Miss head baseball coach Mike Bianco said this week is always one that's looked upon with great anticipation. The Rebels begin their season Friday at 3 p.m. against Louisiana-Monroe.

"It's an exciting time as it always is," he said. "This team entering opening day has probably had to handle more adversity and different things that have happened through the program than any team that I've ever had before opening day. They've had to jump some hurdles and had some tests already. And they've passed with flying colors."

Among the challenges were these: A majority of team members had the flu during the early stages of fall ball. Sunday starter Trent Rothlin had a bout with mono in the fall, and he only pitched late in the session. Their closer, Jake Morgan, and another pitcher, Jon Andy Scott, were lost in the fall for the year due to Tommy John surgery. One of the assistant coaches left the program in December. Two team members, freshmen Evan Frazar and Zach Lowery, were dismissed in December.

There were more but you get the picture. Bianco said the maturity and focus of even the younger players has come through.

"They're a team that's been as competitive and practiced as hard, especially over the last three weeks, as any team I've ever had," he said. "So I'm excited about them."

Bianco said the coaching staff has really challenged the team throughout the fall and preseason practices.

"We do have some new faces. We also have some kids that have been around, and some are playing some different positions and are in some different roles that they'll be counted on," he said. "We wanted to push their competitiveness. Certainly they've answered the call."

Bianco said this team can pitch it and hit it, and in some cases it's just a matter of getting some experience, especially for the pitchers.

"It's one of the best offenses we've had in some time," he said. "It's a pitching staff that's inexperienced but certainly very, very talented. We've just been spoiled the last few years. You had those guys like (Phillip) Irwin and (Brett) Bukvich and (Nathan) Baker, guys that pitched as true freshmen who were still in the program. This is one of those years that we're talented but with a lot of names you haven't learned yet."

A Better Barrett

Aaron Barrett came to Ole Miss as a junior last season following a solid juco career. He was being counted on as a weekend starter. He was one early but it didn't last long.

The Evansville, Indiana, native made 14 appearances last year with 30 innings and four starts. He only had one decision with an 0-1 record and had an ERA of 8.70.

But Bianco said the 6-foot-2, 209-pound Barrett is ready to change things for the better this time around, and he'll get the ball Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in game two of the series against UL-M.

"When he came here he was super-talented, a guy with great stuff. This year he seems to be more of a pitcher, still with great stuff. Last year he seemed to be too inconsistent, in and out of the zone, inconsistent with his pitches, his fast ball good this day, or his slider. But when you struggle, sometimes it's tough to fall back on something. When you pitch and you locate and you have a plan and pitch with confidence, that makes all the difference in the world."

Bianco said Barrett looks like he indeed feels confident on the mound this preseason.

"This year he just looks more like a complete pitcher. This year it seems like his breaking ball is in the zone more, his fast ball is down in the zone more, and he looks more comfortable with his role. It's turned into some better outings for him in intrasquad games."

Limited Roster Challenges

The NCAA ruled a couple of years ago that a Division I baseball roster could only have 35 players. That's potentially enough, if you don't have two players dismissed and two pitchers with season-ending surgeries. The Rebels experienced all the above.

"In all honesty, we didn't feel it last year," Bianco said. "A lot of programs did. Because of injuries and some other things, we've felt it a lot more (this year). Fortunately for us we have some guys, like Matt Smith and Miles Hamblin and Zach Miller and Alex Yarbrough, who can play different positions. And when you have that, it makes it a lot easier."

Bianco said the new legislation is altering the way coaches evaluate high school and junior college talent for their programs.

"I think it's going to change the way we recruit," he said. "Guys that can play infield and outfield, guys that can pitch and hit, they are going to have more value. They've always had value. But I think they'll have more value now.

"So we've felt it this year, and I don't look at it as a negative," he continued. "Thankfully we have some athletes we can move around. We do have some options. I think you'll see a lot of different situations (with players in multiple positions), and fortunately that's because we are able to do that."

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