Photo courtesy of Ole Miss
Disappointment. Fell short again. Bullpen disasters. All of these could describe how the 2021 Ole Miss baseball season came to an end. The elusive berth in Omaha slipped out of the Rebels grasp in the form of an offensive onslaught in Tucson by the red hot Arizona Wildcats. The Super Regional exit left many questions, particularly about the pitching staff with the departure of Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund.
Who will replace Nikhazy and Hoglund?
The first name to keep an eye on will be Derek Diamond. Diamond was the Sunday starter to begin the 2021 season, and showed flashes of the filthy stuff he was recruited for. But SEC play was too much for the third-year sophomore as he posted a 6.08 ERA in 10 SEC games, seven of those being starts. The key for Diamond will be how he fares the second and third time through the order, which is where he really struggled last season.
While Rebel fans are familiar with Diamond, the newcomers to the rotation will be a key factor to this season's squad. John Gaddis (LHP, Texas A&M Corpus-Christi) and Jack Washburn (RHP, Oregon State) were key additions during the offseason. Gaddis posted a 2.25 ERA last season in 64 innings pitched, while Washburn put up a 3.12 ERA over 34.2 innings pitched. While we dont' know the official weekend rotation just yet, look for these two newcomers to be a factor for key spots in the rotation.
The Rebel offense is healthy. And dangerous.
Few fans have forgotten the devastating loss of star first baseman Tim Elko during the regular season last year. The loss of Elko, combined with the injury to Gunnar Hoglund, put a damper on what was otherwise a very promising season. But the captain is back for one last ride, and he anchors what looks to be a prolific Rebel offense. Here is a look at what the Rebels have returning offensively:
Jacob Gonzalez: .355, 1.004 OPS, 12 HR, 55 RBI, .443 OBP.
Kevin Graham: .342, .984 OPS, 14 HR, 56 RBI, .422 OBP.
Justin Bench: .307, .863 OPS, 7 HR, 39 RBI, .423 OBP
TJ McCants: .300, .802 OPS, 5 HR, 35 RBI, .369 OBP
Hayden Dunhurst: .280, .820 OPS, 7 HR, 43 RBI, .385 OBP
Peyton Chatagnier; .271, .780 OPS, 6 HR, 43 RBI, .368 OBP
Tim Elko: .325, 1.119 OPS, 16 HR, 55 RBI, .444 OBP
Hayden Leatherwood: .285, .789 OPS, 7 HR, 33 RBI, .348 OBP
These are the names that will anchor the Rebel offense that hit .288 as a team last season and blasted 85 homers. They will be joined by a few unfamiliar faces replacing the departing Rebels. But if this squad can stay healthy, they look to be one of the most dangerous lineups not only in the SEC, but in the country. I'll be keeping a particularly close eye on Jacob Gonzalez who was a breakout star in his first season in Oxford and looks to be a vital piece to this year's squad.
Non-conference wins will be vital.
Last season, the Rebels were able to boost their resume early with a big opening weekend tournament in Arlington against national baseball powers Texas, Texas Tech, and TCU. This season however, there will be no immediate chance to get quality wins. The Ole Miss schedule prior to SEC play consists of Charleston-Southern, Arkansas State, VCU, Louisiana-Monroe, UCF, Memphis, Alcorn State, Oral Roberts, and Southeastern Louisiana. None of these programs are in the D1 Baseball preseason top 25, which means that Ole Miss can't afford to perform poorly against any of them. If they don't take care of business in these series', their postseason seeding and hosting chances could take a hit.
Ole Miss faces a tough SEC slate this season.
While the non-conference schedule is, on paper, a relatively weak one, the SEC slate is far from it. The Rebels open on the road at Auburn, followed by a visit from Tennessee, a team that came out of nowhere last season and ended up in Omaha. The Rebels remaining schedule features road series' at Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas, and LSU, while they will host Alabama, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Texas A&M. There's no rest for the weary in the SEC.
Expectations for the season.
It's hard to replace Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund. You don't need me to tell you that. The pitching staff will certainly be a question, but despite injuries and a young staff last season, the Rebels ended with 45 wins and a Super Regional berth. I expect Diamond to be much improved and anchor the weekend rotation and the transfers to add some much needed experience and leadership. Barring injury, the Ole Miss offense can compete with anyone in the country. Tim Elko coming back will matter off the field just as much as on. If the way this team responded to him coming back to the lineup late last season is any indication, the morale boost he will provide this season will be no small thing. If I was going to offer a prediction, I would not only expect the Rebels to be a postseason host, but to be in the hunt for 50 wins yet again.
Austin Eldridge covers Ole Miss athletics for the Sidelines Sports Network, as well as being a play by play broadcaster in North Mississippi and Memphis. Twitter: @SSN_OleMiss, @AustinOnAir1021