The college baseball season begins Friday, and Ole Miss hosts Winthrop at Swayze for the year’s first three-game weekend series. Chase Parham reports that skipper Mike Bianco is rolling with the three-man tier we’ve expected all along, Ryan Rolison on Friday, Brady Feigl on Saturday, and James McArthur on Sunday. That’s an impressive battery of strong arms, and if the Diamondsharks don’t leg out a season-opening series win — if not an outright sweep — there will be considerable hell to pay.
But, on the contrary, Winthrop manager Tom Riginos announced this week that he would be saving his ace for the series finale on Sunday and will toss his two and three pitchers respectively on Friday and Saturday. It’s one thing to go with your ace on Saturday to try and snatch some momentum in the middle of a weekend series, but going for it on Sunday is rather bold, is it not?
So which one is it? Is there a right way to do it? Are we all insane?
Rolison, Feigl, and McArthur are experienced arms returning to a rotation that dealt admirably last year, even though Rebel hitters couldn’t back them up when it mattered. The factors and procedures that go into the NCAA baseball tournament selection committee’s decisions to populate the CWS field are arcane, to be sure, but given that the NCAA baseball tourney is built on three- and sometimes four-day sets over the course of four weeks in June, it’s impossible not to think that a team’s season performance in three-day weekend series — especially against in-conference competition, and especially against SEC competition — doesn’t factor in.
That then brings us to weekend pitching rotation ordering in college baseball, especially for a team like Ole Miss, that currently enjoys an embarrassment of hard arms from top to bottom. Here’s what we propose.
Reverse the traditional Friday and Saturday starters, while keeping the Sunday guy where he is.
Normal college baseball strategy dictates that a club’s big ace should throw in a series’ Friday opener, and that makes sense. Start strong, then rely on depth and the pen to carry you through the Saturday and Sunday tilts. After all, your opponents are battling through similar roster issues as Friday rolls into Saturday and thence into Sunday. Production necessarily wears off.
But what we’re proposing here is the following, assuming that Rolison, Feigl, and McArthur have the best stuff in Bianco’s shop, currently in that order.
- Friday: previous swing-man Feigl
- Saturday: acknowledged ace Rolison
- Sunday: mop-up man McArthur
It’s a long season, and one or the other of this cohort may emerge as the new clubhouse leader for ace-like duties, but that doesn’t matter. Whoever’s throwing best in the shop should govern Saturday games, while whoever’s throwing second best should open any given weekend series.
Here’s why: the importance of the Saturday game.
If we assume that series wins and not necessarily sweeps factor heavily into the selection committee’s collective mind come tournament time, Ole Miss needs to focus on winning two out of three weekend games against a given opponent as the season wears on. Regardless of what happens in the opening game of a weekend series, Saturday is tantamount to taking a three-game set. Losing on Saturday potentially tanks a team for that there weekend. Winning on Saturday potentially seals a series win, regardless of what happens on Sunday.
In short, Ole Miss has to win on Saturdays, and throwing the team’s best stuff on Saturday puts them in the best position to do that.
But that presents a mismatch in the weekend’s opener, no?
Yes, but only slightly, and especially in the case of Ole Miss’ current rotation. Indeed, under this prescription Feigl faces off against his opponent’s No. 1 slinger, but Feigl started six games last year and commanded an ERA of 4.08. His relief work last season was at times stunning, and he shut Arkansas and Auburn down in late innings within the space of three weeks. He’s got experience, moxie, and power enough to match up with bulls all over the SEC, to say nothing of the Rebs’ out-of-conference schedule. Give him solid bats to match, and he probably holds his own against most every team in the country on opening night.
Sure, there’s something to be said about being “The Friday Guy” in college baseball, but the goal here is Omaha, and if a slight, though significant, strategical tweak ushers in a trip to the College World Series, then it’s worth it to try. Further, if the transposition of Nos. 1 and 2 arms drives other coaches across the SEC insane because it actually works, then Mike Bianco becomes the greatest modern innovator in the game.
With the Friday-Saturday switch out of the way, the rest becomes easy.
Rolison against an opponent’s second best stuff? By all means. Put him on the mound after a late Friday bout and watch him fan batter after batter. Face him down against Texas A&M’s No. 2 and see what happens. His odds of beating out a guy one rung lower on the enemy’s depth chart are good, and as we’ve already mentioned, Saturdays are always must win scenarios.
Further, it’s a no-brainer to keep McArthur in the three-spot, because win or lose on Saturday, he matches up fine with this or that team’s third option on Sunday. Ole Miss’ pen is deep this season, and anyway facing off against an opponent’s third best arm changes nothing at all in his preparation and placement for a three-game series. He’ll throw the same either way.
The interesting kink here is that if only one team with an ingrained set of Nos. 1-3 hurlers — say, Ole Miss baseball — adopts this progression, it could disrupt a full season of weekend series, and perhaps lead to a sea-change in how clubs’ coaches go about constructing three-day rotations. It also frees up teams and coaches to fiddle around with orders in anticipation of the college baseball offseason, which demands at times wild and outside-the-box thinking when it comes to pitching decisions.
Either way, there’s little to lose here in the early season to see how it goes. Let’s make the Saturday starter the big bull of Ole Miss’ pitching staff, because Saturday matters.