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Right Field Review: Ole Miss baseball sweeps No. 9 ECU to start the season

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WELCOME BACK, BASEBALL.

Josh McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

No one would have faulted Ole Miss had it stumbled a bit out of the starting blocks of the 2017 season. After all, a Rebels team that lost a host of key contributors to the MLB Draft was forced to start four freshmen on opening day and faced a top-10 East Carolina club that was an extra-innings game away from Omaha last year.

Instead, Mike Bianco’s precocious young team went and pulled off a weekend sweep in front of a record-breaking home crowd.

You never want to put too much emphasis on a three-game sample size, but this No. 1-ranked freshman class looks like its for real. Hulking slugger Thomas Dillard went 4-for-8 with two walks and emerged from his first ever college baseball series with a .600 on-base percentage. Cooper Johnson showed why some scouts considered him to be the best defensive catcher in the 2016 draft, gunning down multiple base stealers and nabbing a pair of back-picks with his Peyton Manning laser, rocket arm. First-basemen Cole Zebowski knocked in four of the Rebels’ eight runs during Sunday’s six-run comeback, including a two-run homer in the second inning. The Game 3 comeback was also fueled by shortstop Grae Kessinger, who racked up three hits after going 0-for on Friday and Saturday.

The freshmen will have their ups and downs to be sure, but if they can produce anywhere near the level they did during opening weekend, this team could be dangerous.

Let’s run through the weekend, shall we?

Scores and highlights

Friday: Ole Miss 5, ECU 4

Saturday: Ole Miss 3, ECU 2

Sunday: Ole Miss 8, ECU 6

4 things you should know

1. The freshmen weren’t the only ones showing out.

How ‘bout your boy Ryan Olenek, who kicked in the door of his sophomore year with a 6-for-13 weekend at the dish. With Ole Miss trailing by a run in the sixth inning on Sunday, it was Olenek who mashed a two-out, two-run double to take the lead. He’s still lanky as all hell, but the talented outfielder looks like he’ll be a key contributor at the top of the lineup.

So does Will Golsan, the junior utility man who’s moved to the outfield after spending his first two seasons at second and first base, respectively. He caused the season’s first beer shower with a solo shot to left on Friday and snuck a double juuust inside the line to score the tying run in the seventh inning on Saturday.

Cumulatively, Ole Miss’ lineup strolled out of its matchup with a top-10 pitching staff with a .293 batting average—and that was with the preseason All-SEC duo of Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles going just 2-for-20. When their bats wake up, watch out.

2. It’s hard to feel particularly enthused by the starting pitching.

This is the Debbie Downer section of this article. Yes, David Parkinson only allowed six hits and three runs during seven frames on Friday—which is encouraging considering last year’s ace, Brady Bramlett, rarely ate up that many innings—but James McArthur (4.1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER) and Brady Feigl (5.0 IP, 9 H, 4 ER) struggled with consistency on Saturday and Sunday.

Not that you should read too far into that—both guys are sophomores and Feigl, who spent last season in the bullpen, was making the first start of his collegiate career. Still, opening weekend didn’t assuage my doubts about Ole Miss’ ability to match up with the premium arms stockpiled elsewhere in the SEC.

3. Still, the bullpen is so deep that Ole Miss doesn’t necessarily need long outings from its starters.

Already up 2-0 with the bases loaded and only one away, ECU was poised to break Saturday’s game wide open in the top of the fifth. In stepped sophomore Andy Pagnozzi, a hard-throwing righty who figures to be a key middle reliever. He promptly coaxed a huge double play to escape the jam, then worked another two innings of scoreless ball while the Rebels rallied back into the lead.

A year after signing 11 pitchers in its 2015 recruiting class, an Ole Miss pen stacked with talented young relievers looks like it will be the strength of the team. How about Dallas Woolfolk, who struck out the side after inheriting a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the eighth inning of a one-run game on Sunday? Or Will Stokes, who proved he’s ready to take over the closer role from Wyatt Short by working a six-out save on Friday only to turn around and slam the door in the ninth inning again on Saturday.

4. Swayze was PACKED all weekend.

The weather was perfect, which, in addition to the desire to move past a haunting football season and another middling hoops campaign, brought fans out in droves. Ole Miss set a new attendance record with over 12,000 recorded fans on Friday. Toss in Saturday and Sunday and Ole Miss had higher attendance in a single weekend (32,500) than 243 of the 300 DI baseball programs had all of last season.

That made for some fantastic beer showers out in Right Field.