Rebels make progress, battle injuries leading up to Opening Day

Posted on Feb 6 2019 - 5:50am by John Macon Gillespie

Ole Miss baseball began its third week of spring practice on Monday, and opening day is a little more than a week away.

The Rebels’ second week of practice ended with three intrasquad scrimmages, as will this week’s, in preparation to host Wright State in a three-game series Feb. 15-17.

Although the Rebels’ starting pitching rotation is still in question, head coach Mike Bianco was pleased with how his staff pitched in the scrimmages over the weekend.

“We actually pitched it better this past weekend, I thought,” Bianco said. “Overall, as a staff, we commanded it much better than we did the first weekend, where I thought about half the guys pitched it well and the other half struggled in the strike zone. This weekend, more guys jumped on board with that, and I think saw success.”

Players like Jordan Fowler saw improvement in intrasquad games last weekend, but Bianco believes the Saturday and Sunday starting roles are still up in the air, which he said is a good problem to have.

“I would say it’s still pretty fluid,” Bianco said. “I think we want to get through this next weekend before we start naming names. The names haven’t changed, and I think everybody knows who’s in the running, and that’s good. I don’t necessarily look at that as a bad thing. If it was so cut-and-dry, you wouldn’t have the depth that we’re talking about.”

One of the biggest storylines of the weekend was an ankle injury to junior shortstop Grae Kessinger. X-rays on Kessinger came back negative, and it is believed that he suffered a sprain similar to one he suffered around this time last year.

“I think (Kessinger feels) good,” Bianco said. “It happened within a couple days of when it happened last year, (and) all the prognosis is that that’s what it’s going to be. I don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves, but hopefully he’ll be ready for opening day.”

The Rebels’ Thomas Dillard, who played high school ball with Kessinger, is also hopeful that the latter player will be ready for opening day action. Even if Kessinger is not ready, however, Dillard is confident in the ability of Ole Miss’s roster depth to fill the hole.

“I know how Grae is with his ankles, and I think he’ll be back for opening day,” Dillard said. “Having a guy like (Anthony Servideo), or even Justin Bench or Jacob Adams who can step in there right away just speaks to how deep our lineup is at every position, really. You can almost do that with any position, and we have someone who can step in right there.”

Dillard, who has played left field since he arrived at Ole Miss, has worked a lot behind the plate as catcher since his predecessor Nick Fortes was drafted in 2018. Dillard was rated the top catcher in Mississippi by Perfect Game before signing with Ole Miss, so he is familiar with this role.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better as it’s gone,” Dillard said. “Just had to knock some rust off (and) get more comfortable back there, but coach (Carl Lafferty) has done a great job getting me and the other catchers as many reps in practice as possible.”

As far as replacing Fortes’s place in the lineup, Dillard believes the former catcher leaves a bigger hole than just his statistics.

“Nick (Fortes) was kind of a main cog in our offense last year — a three-hole hitter that really made us go,” Dillard said. “We’re definitely going to have to find a guy to replace him there, not only from a statistics perspective but (from) a leadership perspective. Nick liked to keep things loose in the dugout. (He’s) just kind of a funny guy, so having him there was definitely something that kept our heads on straight. It’s going to be tough replacing him, but I think we have the bats to do it.”