Ole Miss has jumped out to an impressive 20-5 start and an undefeated record in the midweek, leaning on timely hitting a dominant bullpen to reach 20 wins faster than any team in program history. The weakness, however, seems to be the starting pitching on the weekend. What had been a troubling but inconsequential issue for most of the season became a full-blown problem against South Carolina, when the three starters combined to allow 22 hits and 11 runs in just 12.1 innings (an ERA of 8.03).
So what can Mike Bianco do to fix the problem? I have a few ideas.
Bramlett needs to throw on Sunday.
Usually in college baseball, the Friday night guy is your ace—the guy you use to grab that first win and snatch the early momentum. But, sometimes your "best" guy isn't best for the Friday slot.
Brady Bramlett has had a fine start to the season—he's 4-1 with a comfortable 2.90 ERA through six Game 1 starts—but I think he would be utilized on Sunday. Before you scroll down to the comments and get mad on here, hear me out.
Bramlett's pitching style is all about command and precision. He's not going to blow you away with velocity or overpowering stuff. His style is somewhat similar to how you want your leadoff hitter to be: he works counts deep. By this I mean, Brady sort of feels hitters out by locating pitches around the plate and seeing how they react to fastballs low and in or offspeed away. This style can be effective when you're hitting your spots and can be efficient. When Bramlett struggles with command like we saw last weekend against South Carolina, however, he runs into pitch count trouble.
Bramlett is averaging just 5.2 innings per start this season. He lasted just 4.1 against the Gamecocks last Thursday. That's not what you want from your Game 1 starter. If he can't work into the sixth or seventh inning (which gives Bianco the option of tossing a setup guy for one or two then letting Wyatt Short take the ball), it chews up bullpen arms and puts the staff at a disadvantage for the rest of the weekend.
I feel Brady is best served on Sunday where he can be comfortable working five or six innings, then turning it over to Johnny Wholestaff. This also gives you a proven SEC starter, a guy who gives you a chance to win every outing, going in the finale.
As far as Sean Johnson pitching on Sunday, I don't think he's ready. And by that I mean not 100 percent healthy. In my opinion he rushed back from Tommy John surgery and he's fatiguing earlier in outings because of it. Bianco sat him last weekend to give him rest, but plans on plugging him back in against Mississippi State. I think he should rest a little bit longer.
Smitty might have the best stuff for Friday.
Don't let the 2-2 record and 4.80 ERA fool you—Chad Smith can be an ace on this staff. His best outing of the year was wasted when he worked out of multiple jams to toss 7.0 innings against a top five Louisville team. I know you're saying: "well, Zach, he gave up two earned runs and only had one strikeout." But, against a really good hitting team, he was able to scatter six hits and get outs when Ole Miss needed it most.
Smith looks to be the guy with the best swing and miss stuff. Bramlett leads the team in strikeouts, but Smith's offspeed stuff can be deadly and his fastball consistently sits in the 90s with late action to it. Against Tennessee in a crucial swing game, Smitty Stache struck out seven Vols over 4.2 innings.
But unlike Bramlett, he doesn't necessarily lean on strikeouts. Smith doesn't waste many pitches and he'll challenge hitters early and often, leading to a lot of ground outs and fly outs, which in turn leads to a lower pitch count.
Smith's best pitching days are ahead of him as he gets accustomed to the SEC, but he could be a guy to work deep into the Friday night game and get the Rebs a 1-0 series lead every weekend.
Parkinson might be a Saturday starter.
Freshman David Parkinson has appeared in 11 games, striking out 17 in 17.2 and sporting a stingy 1.53 ERA. He has been one of the better arms out of the bullpen for pitching coach Carl Lafferty, but could he be an answer on the weekend? I think so. The kid is a bulldog on the mound and doesn't seem to know what fear or pressure is. He's left-handed, can touch low-90s and has shown great command. And he does it all with effortless comfort on the mound, something that is a must when you're a weekend guy,
Maybe a lefty is what this rotation needs. It causes coaches to somewhat shuffle their lineup and it can make dudes uncomfortable at the dish whether they're a lefty and having to fight off inside heat or a righty having to try and hit a back-foot slider, Parky is more than capable of being the Saturday guy. With David's grit on the bump, he is my candidate to either win you the series or get it back even.
Too Short is the wild card.
Some of you might remember a pitching conundrum from way back when in 2009. Friday wasn't much of an issue thanks to a fella named Drew Pomeranz (8-4, 124K in 95.1 IP), Saturday was locked down by Phillip Irwin (8-3, 3.84 ERA), but no one could emerge on Sunday. So Bianco moved Ole Miss legend Scott Bittle, who had been a closer for his entire career, to the starting rotation. It was a ballsy move, but it paid off: the Bittler ended the year with a 2.17 ERA and a 5-2 record, helping the Rebs to a regular season SEC title.
Fast forward to 2016 and the Rebs are in another pitching conundrum. And this time, they have another closer on the squad that could very well be up for it: Wyatt Short. The preseason All-American has been absolutely filthy on the young season, posting 17 strikeouts and a microscopic 0.56 ERA through 16 innings. Forced into action early to relieve Pagnozzi in Game 3 against the Gamecocks last weekend, he essentially became a starter, working 5.2 innings while allowing just one hit. Wyatt has that competitive edge that might be what the weekend rotation needs. He sits low 90s from the left side and has fantastic swing and miss stuff.
If any of the other suggested starters backfire, perhaps you consider moving Short into one of the weekend starting spots. Or maybe he's a guy who could give you a fourth starter come tournament time. With Will Stokes and Dallas Woolfolk on the back end you still have two perfectly capable guys to close out a ballgame.
With 24 conference games left, the season is far from over and this is by no means a sign of panic for the pitching staff. This is just a way to see how some guys respond in pressure situations. Either they relish it and take advantage, or they clam up and aren't ready yet. But, with Bramlett's pitch count steadily climbing on Friday and Sean Johnson's return from Tommy John surgery still a question mark, the Rebels have to do something different. As my father always says, "if you keep doing what you're doing, you're gonna keep getting what you're getting."