Mike Bianco Season-Opening Press Conference

Photo by Angie Ledbetter, Rebel Nation Magazine

Ole Miss Head Coach Addressed the Media Monday Afternoon

Ole Miss head baseball coach Mike Bianco addressed reporters Monday afternoon as part of the Rebels’ official Media Day. Ole Miss Baseball begins the season this Friday, Feb. 17, at 4 p.m. versus No. 6 East Carolina at Swayze Field.
Opening Statement …

“Thank you Adam, I appreciate it. Many of you know Adam our sports information director, he does a great job. We’ve had several over the years and he’s certainly been the best we’ve ever had. He’s an ace, and we’re thankful for him. Welcome to what I think is my 17th press conference and as many of you know, there’s lots of polls and rankings out there and I started doing something this year with these media guys who have been here about as long as I have; I’ve started ranking the reporters. Every week I’m going to start a poll, this week Chase Parham, you’re ranked number one in the reporter’s poll for your great article this morning. I appreciate you finding a picture of me with hair and everything. That was nice and we appreciate it. Anyway, welcome and thank you for being here. Obviously I’m very excited as well as the players and other coaches to start a new season. The players have been hard at work for the past six months since late August. As many of you know, it’s been written about that we welcomed in the number one ranked recruiting class this fall and they haven’t disappointed. They’ve been tremendous; the transition has been really smooth on and off the field and I’m really proud of those guys, but just as proud of our upperclassmen the way they’ve handled themselves. You know three of them are here today, Colby (Bortles), Will (Golsan) and Tate (Blackman), that you’ll get to speak to. I think part of the transition for the younger guys is the leadership that the older guys have shown and although there’s only eight, which I was astonished when I really looked at the roster back in August that we have eight juniors and seniors, so that’s 28 freshmen and sophomores on this team. All of the eight upperclassmen have already impacted the program. They’re all players and guys who have played significant roles, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had that where all your older guys are guys that contribute on the mound and in the field every single day, and I think that’s part of the reason that they’ve shown that great leadership. They’ve been there before and certainly when we talk about those young guys who I’ll mention in a second by name, it’s made their transition easier, and there’s no doubt they’ll play big roles as well. I didn’t know if I’d talk about the pitchers or the position players first, but I figured the rotation which has probably been the biggest question mark for me to this point. Friday night we’ll start David Parkinson, on Saturday we’ll start James McArthur and on Sunday we’ll start Brady Feigl. The reason it’s been difficult to kind of figure out is because of the competition. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a year where I thought so many different guys that could do it. Not only those three guys that I mentioned but true freshmen Greer Holston, Ryan Rolison and Will Ethridge. I think those were the six guys who were really candidates to start Friday, Saturday and Sunday for us. I chose those guys because they give us the best shot to succeed. I think after looking at everything over the last six months and watching the way they’ve handled themselves, what they’ve done in the past and certainly what they’ve done in the last few weeks, I think they give us the best shot to succeed against East Carolina. Along with those guys Rolison, Greer and Ethridge, they’ll start off in the bullpen with what I consider another outstanding bullpen. As many of you know much of our success last year was due to a very strong bullpen. This year again, Andy Pagnozzi is back in the bullpen, a Freshman All-American. Connor Green, who had 20 appearances last year as a true freshman, is back in the bullpen with Dallas Woolfolk, who I believe led the team in ERA last year. For Parrish (Alford), our closer this year looks to be Will Stokes. Another really strong pitching staff not only on the back end in the bullpen, but I think the starters as well. As far as the position players going around the horn: at third base Colby Bortles will start, a true freshman at shortstop Grae Kessinger, at second base Preseason All-SEC Tate Blackman. At first base you’ll probably see several guys from Cole Zabowski, a freshman, Chase Cockrell, a junior college transfer from Hinds Community College and of course Michael Fitzsimmons who was with us last year and had an outstanding freshman year. Behind the plate, Cooper Johnson, another true freshman, looks to be the starter, but another guy that will catch for us the first weekend as well is a guy by the name of Nick Fortes who caught for us last year as a true freshman and who’s really played well, especially as we’ve gotten back this year. I think he’s caught more like the catcher we thought he would be coming out of high school and has had an excellent sophomore campaign. In the outfield, in left field looks like we’ll start Thomas Dillard. Thomas is another true freshman. Thomas is also a catcher, and I think will also be in the mix to catch. With his offensive prowess, his big bat will fit well in the middle of the lineup. A switch hitter, and he’ll start opening day in left field. In center field, Ryan Olenek. Ryan is a converted infielder now in the outfield, really could play any position on the field he’s so athletic. He’s improved in the outfield and has all the tools I think to be a great center fielder for us. In right field Will Golsan. Will starts as a junior in right field, his third position. As you know, he started as a freshman at second base, a sophomore at first base and this may be his true position, so the coaches might have finally figured that out. He’s a great athlete that has all the tools to be a great outfielder, and I’ve think we’ve seen that the last six months the way he’s taken to it where it shows more of his athleticism. He can run, has a great arm, and I’m excited for him to be out there. Another position player that you’ll see a lot, I think, at a lot of different positions is Kyle Watson. Kyle can play the outfield, play center field, can play shortstop, and there’re not many guys who can play a premium defensive position and start just about anywhere on the field. He’ll certainly get that opportunity as the first weekend gets here. With that I’ll leave it up to you with some questions.”

On trust level in Parkinson being the Opening Day starter and only lefty in the opening rotation as well as trust level in freshman pitchers…
“It had nothing to do with him being left-handed. I think with David two things stand out to me. He was the number two pitcher last year, sub 3.00 ERA if I’m not mistaken. You know we needed a boost to the rotation last year when it seemed like Bramlett was really cruising, but the other two slots were a little inconsistent. David came out of the bullpen and was so good for us in that Saturday role. Secondly, I think David just gives us the best shot. Watching him going in, I wasn’t sure whether him or McArthur was going to give us the best shot on Friday night. You think about maybe splitting up Feigl and McArthur by putting a left-hander in between, but to be honest with you, David’s just pitched the best out of all of them. And the freshmen, I think they’ll get there. How soon? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’ll be this year or how long it’ll be, but it’s rare that the three that start the first weekend start the last weekend so I wouldn’t be surprised. All those freshmen will get a chance in the midweek and certainly get a chance the first weekend to show what they can do.”

On whether or not more freshmen are arriving to college baseball ready to play and are needed to play than 5-10 years ago…
“I think it’s a combination of what you just said. I think one, because of the competition and how much baseball they’ve played before they’ve gotten here, that’s true that there’s probably more. We’ve always had great freshmen from Stephen Head to Seth Smith to Jordan Henry and others, but I think when you look at this class they’re a super talented class, and there seems to be a lot more of those guys in this class. But I think in general, it’s a great observation. I also think that because of the draft and the way things work, not to go down the road of 11.7 and all those things, but sometimes there’s more of a need. You need those guys to contribute more immediately and the great ones usually do. There’s great stories of Scott Weathersby and Will Kline and others that maybe redshirted or didn’t impact, and I think that still happens. I certainly think there are guys like Grae, Cooper and Thomas and some of the pitchers we’ve mentioned that their time is now and you’ve got to let them go.”

On if there’s a need to lean on the few older guys a little more with as many young guys or have you always had older guys like that who know when to step up…
“We always talk about chemistry. Coaches always talk about that, and it’s a hard thing to coach Sometimes I used to think you either have it or you don’t, that chemistry and leadership, but I think all of us coaches have paid more attention to that. We’ve tried to develop that chemistry, that teamsmanship, and I think this year with the young team we sat together as a staff in August before they got here and realized how young we really would be and how few older guys that be better start immediately. We’ve talked a lot about leadership. They actually had to read a book over the Christmas break, which we usually do, but this one was about being a great teammate called “The Hard Hat” by Jon Gordon. I think we’ve probably stressed it a little more than we normally do, but we always do and I think it’s been easy with this crew’s because they’ve been really receptive to it. I think it’s really easy to be a great leader when you do it the right way, and we have some student-athletes that do it the right way.”

On how to handle the designated hitter spot and who is being looked at there…
“Some of the players that I mentioned, I mentioned three first basemen and Kyle Watson and there’s other guys like Tim Rowe and DJ Miller that I think have a shot to play and contribute offensively. So of those guys, there’s certainly a slot in that DH spot. That’s kind of a catch-all position that you can run a bat in there. Some of it’s that I’m not sure because we’re not sure the East Carolina rotation yet and how we’ll do that. I have no doubt that there will be three different lineups the first weekend. One of the things we have to figure out is not only the nine positions but the best nine. Who’s best against a right-handed pitcher, who’s the best against a left-handed pitcher and what order is another thing. One thing this team doesn’t have is that prototypical leadoff guy. We don’t have that Braxton Lee or that Jordan Henry that’s fast and is going to take a lot of pitches and work the counts; we have a lot of really good hitters. This team will be more physical than last year’s team as far as extra base hits and home runs, but I think we have that component of running, just not that leadoff hitter. Most of the guys that run like Blackman, Golsan and Olenek are very aggressive hitters as well. I think the leadoff spot is one I’d like to try to figure out as quickly as possible.”

On Cooper Johnson as well as the other catchers that gives Ole Miss depth behind the plate…
“Well it’s just the talent and sometimes it works out that way. In all honesty, we knew that we were returning Nick Fortes and Carson Klepzig, but when you looked at the recruiting class and you saw Thomas Dillard and Cooper Johnson, and another poll you talk about is where they’re ranked coming out of high school. You’re talking about two pretty highly-touted catching prospects and will they make it through the Major League Draft and get here. So if you’re a betting man, maybe the safest bet was neither one of them would get here and they both got here. That’s part of the reason why we have so much depth and so much talent is that some guys turned down the Major League Draft to come to college, which is great for us. But with that, you got four guys behind the plate that I think can catch and can catch at a very high level. To this point, Cooper’s shown me defensively he can be a game changer with his arm and his quick release. There’s times in intrasquads where you just shake your head, but the other guys are all talented. The other guys we don’t feel a problem with any of them running out and catching, especially the last two or three weeks. When you watch Nick back there behind the plate, he’s done a terrific job and has really swung it well. I think we’ll have some different options. I think sometimes when you talk about competition and depth at the position that’s good because obviously everyone works real hard because everything’s on the line, but I also think it takes some pressure off of everybody to where there’s other people that can kind of hold that rope if you don’t play as well, and I see that with them as well.”

Thoughts on tough non-conference opponents to start the year off…
“You’re exactly right. I talked to Cliff Godwin, the coach at East Carolina who used to coach here a few years ago, and we kind of chuckled when three years ago we thought it would be a good idea to open up with each other. You know he left and a couple months later we both had an opening and said it’d be a great welcome back, come back here in three years and play. Now they’re ranked in the top 10, and I didn’t know we’d have two seniors and six juniors and all the things that everybody already knows, but it’s good. One of the things that this young team has to learn is the competition, and playing in important games will prepare them for the Southeastern Conference, the number one baseball conference in the country. I don’t know if by design you should design it that way or if it’s the best, but we always play a really tough schedule and we just happen to play a really good team to start off. Then North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) is another Regional-type team that returns a lot of players. Then we go to Houston to play in the Shriner’s College Classic against two teams that made it to the College World Series last year from the Big 12. Certainly a big challenge for us, but I think the young guys are excited about it. It’s what they expect and why you come to Ole Miss. You want to play in great atmospheres in college baseball against some very good competition, and we’ll get that right off the bat on Friday.”

Will Golsan’s versatility and what it means to have a guy like that which you can put in many different spots…
“He’s been a terrific player since he stepped on campus, and he’s one of the reasons we recruit a lot of shortstops. Usually when you go to a high school game, the shortstop is the best player and athlete on the field, and a lot of times you don’t know that they’re going to have that versatility. Will started at second base, and when Tate had a great start to his sophomore year, we moved Will over to first base and we liked him over there. A very athletic first baseman and after we lost Sikes Orvis we thought that was going to be a neat thing. But now when you look at this team with a lot of physical guys who can’t play the outfield, we sat down this summer and said here’s a guy who’s athletic and we took some of that athleticism away from him by playing first base. Let’s see how he takes to the outfield. The greatest compliment I can give to Will is that he’s never complained. Every time I’ve approached him with the subject of going from short to second, from second to first and from first to the outfield, he’s never batted an eye. It’s always been a very easy conversation, and he’s one of those ‘team first’ kind of guys. As a coach, you appreciate that, and of course he’s player terrific at all the positions.”

On Thomas Dillard and what caught his eye with him in the outfield…
“Thomas is a guy that, when you look at him, he looks like a catcher. One of those squatty, strong guys that looks like his position is going to be behind the plate, but what a lot of people don’t know is that Thomas is a great athlete as well. He runs a 6.7-6.8 60, and he has a really good arm and his bat is so good that we have to find a way to get him on the field. Fortunately for us, even though we have that catching depth, Thomas is such a good athlete that we can find another spot for him. It’s not that he’s not going to catch, but being able to do that like a Bryce Harper and some other guys being able to get that bat in the lineup quicker and not fill up that DH spot, where guys like that usually move to DH you’re cutting yourself short at another position, so he really helps the team.”

On what allowed Brady Feigl to win a rotation spot in his second year off Tommy John surgery…
“The easy answer is he may have the best stuff on the team. We saw that last year and you’re right that he’s now two years off of Tommy John, but he continued to get better as the season progressed. He throws his fastball in the low to mid-90s, and he has a sweeping slider which is just a wipeout-type of pitch and he’s really picked up a great changeup. He’s a smart kid and a great competitor, and he’s really as good as anybody we’ve got. The other guys have probably done it more but as you watched Brady pitch this weekend, he gave up a two-run homer in the first inning to Colby Bortles and then I think he pitched five innings without giving up another hit the rest of the game, striking out seven and walking zero. He’s got good command and he was in the bullpen last year not because of stamina or any other reason except for he was just new. He was a freshman coming off surgery, and he was a guy that we thought so much of that he was the first guy out of the bullpen in a regional, a guy that logged important innings. Even though he wasn’t a starter for us, he certainly was a guy that we counted on a lot.”

On the confidence level in Will Stokes to replace Wyatt Short as the closer…
“Will broke an appearance record for us last year. Will pitched in 30 games last year, and I’ve never has a player pitch in as many games in one year as Will Stokes. At many points last year, he was our closer. There were times when we were trying to figure out the rotation, and we moved Wyatt to that Sunday starter and we leaned on Will to play that role for us, to be the guy at the back end and close for us. Maybe if we’d let him, he probably would’ve broken the saves record last year as many times as he got in, but we were fortunate enough to have Wyatt. But my confidence level is at an all-time high. You’re talking about a guy who’s maybe not the returning closer, but a guy who’s close to being that guy. A guy who’s had a lot of success over his first two years in the program, a guy who has tremendous stuff, he’s got a big-time fastball that he’ll throw low to mid-90s and a hard slider. A guy with excellent command who’s been there before, been in our league and he’s a guy that started games in our league as a true freshman. I don’t think there’s another guy who’s more weathered and used to the heat of the SEC as Will Stokes.”

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