Opening Weekend was supposed to bring a degree of clarity to the murky waters surrounding Ole Miss baseball’s pitching situation. The Rebels are deploying an entirely new weekend rotation after losing the top three starters from a year ago.
Instead, the rain-shortened series against Wright State—which Ole Miss split, 1-1—produced more questions than answers. Will Ethridge was brilliant in Friday’s 10-1 win, but JUCO transfer Zach Phillips had a disastrous outing in Saturday’s 9-5 loss. Freshman phenom Gunnar Hoglund, who could be this staff’s biggest X-factor, never saw the field.
The good: Will Ethridge was lights out on Friday.
One inning into the game, it didn’t look like the Rebels’ new ace would stick around for much of the evening. A couple of tough battles against patient Wright State hitters and a throwing error of his own doing had Ethridge, a junior righty hoping to fill the rather large shoes of first-round MLB pick Ryan Rolison, sitting on 30 pitches after the top of the first.
Ethridge lived a bit of a double life coming out of the bullpen last season. There were outings when he was ruthlessly efficient, mowing down batters to pull Ole Miss out of tight spots. There were also outings when he struggled with control and was knocked around. With only four career starts under his belt—all as a freshman in 2017—Ethridge was a bit of an unlikely candidate for SEC ace.
But the rest of his outing on Friday backed up Mike Bianco’s claim that Ethridge was the best pitcher on the team over the offseason. He shook off that long first inning and found the ruthless efficiency, allowing four hits and no runs over 5.2 innings of work. His fastball was ripping in at 94 mph and his breaking pitches were crisp and well-located. It was exactly what Rebel fans wanted to see out of their Friday night ace.
Just as impressive was Austin Miller, who allowed only three baserunners while working the final 3.1 frames. After a 30-pitch first inning, Ole Miss only needed two arms to get through the game.
It didn’t hurt that the offense was rearing to go. Tyler Keenan and Cooper Johnson mashed homers to dead center, aggressive baserunners stacked up eight extra bases and the Rebels rolled to 10 runs on 11 hits.
The bad: Zach Phillips’ first start was rough.
Phillips transferred in from junior college with plenty of buzz, then cinched down a weekend starter spot with a strong preseason. His DI debut didn’t go as planned.
After giving up a run in the first, the wheels came off for Phillips in a two-walk, three-hit, four-run third inning that forced him into the dugout.
Two errors, including one of his own, immediately sent his rhythm haywire in the early going, and he couldn’t recover during the outing. Phillips gave up two runs in 10 intrasquad innings during the preseason, relying on an ever-improving breaking ball, fastball command and, frankly, confidence. Each of those was off on Saturday. Phillips’ fastball velocity never hit 90 MPH, and the command faltered, as balls out and over the plate were punished by a Wright State team that was top 10 nationally in runs per game last season.
The next JUCO transfer to the mound didn’t fare much better: reliever Tyler Broadway got tagged for another three runs on three hits in the fourth. By the time Bianco called a name that Rebel fans recognized—sophomore Max Cioffi—it was 8-0, Wright State. Cioffi was brilliant over the next 3.2 innings (one hit, no runs, five Ks) as the Ole Miss offense chipped away at the lead, but the hole was too deep. Down 9-5, Ole Miss loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth but a Tyler Keenan ground-out ended the rally.
On the plus side, Thomas Dillard did this...
The unknown: A rainout postponed our first look at Gunnar Hoglund.
After watching Phillips scuffle on Saturday, Rebel fans were eager to get a look at Hoglund. The first-round MLB selection turned down nearly $2 million of MLB money to show up for school in Oxford and has the most talented arm on the roster. At just 18, he’s already 6’4, 210 pounds and rockets a fastball at up to 95 mph.
But rain clouds rolling in from southern Texas swamped Oxford on Sunday, forcing the rubber match to be cancelled.
That’s frustrating because an Ole Miss team ranked as high as No. 10 nationally no doubt wanted to bag a series win on Opening Weekend. But it’s even more frustrating that a young pitcher who could play a critical role in the Rebels’ postseason hopes missed an opportunity for live game experience.
We’ll have to wait until next weekend’s road series against Tulane to see Hoglund on the mound.