by Matt Sefcovic (@MattSefcovic)
After one weekend of the much anticipated 2021 college baseball season, you will be hard pressed to find a team that has built a resume as strong as Ole Miss. Sure, Miami looked the part, ruining the Gators first series in their shiny, new ballpark in Gainesville, but the Rebels dominated the Big 12 in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown. Ole Miss, winners of 20 straight, beat three top 12 teams (TCU, Texas Tech, and Texas) during Opening Weekend by a combined score of 20-8. Their performance elevated them to the new #1 team in the country.
Mike Bianco’s pitching staff put up a few ridiculous numbers, especially against the level competition they were playing, striking out 42(!) batters while allowing just 19 hits in 27 innings. Not only did the pitchers look the part, the Rebels defense only made one error in three games, led by rising superstar SS Jacob Gonzalez. Gonzalez, just a freshman, made a household name for himself this weekend with multiple highlight reel plays up the middle. He also had an impressive debut at the plate, batting .364 with a home run, 4 RBI, and 3 runs scored.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, leadoff hitter Peyton Chatagnier, pulled a hamstring in the final game against Texas and will likely be out for a few weeks. The reigning SEC co-player of the week was off to a hot start with 5 hits in his first 11 at bats for the season. Coach Bianco noted that Cael Baker will be available after sitting out opening weekend due to COVID protocols.
On the mound, Derek Diamond was lights out against Texas on Monday, tossing 6 innings, allowing just 1 run on 4 hits, while striking out 8. Doug Nikhazy did not have his best stuff against TCU, but the Rebels bullpen combined for 14 innings during the three-game span, giving up just one single run. It’s going to be difficult to beat this team in a series if the bullpen can consistently put up numbers like that. Do not look for Nikhazy to struggle again this weekend against the Knights; he will be back to doing Nikhazy things in no time.
On the flip side, UCF opened the season with high hopes after ending 2020 with a 15-3 record before college baseball came to a halt. The Knights, ranked 25th in the preseason, opened 2021 with a three-game series against Florida Atlantic, one at home and two on the road. Things did not go quite as planned for the #25 team in the country, allowing 38 runs on 38 hits in the three-game series, losing two of them. The Knights pitching struggled to find the zone this weekend, allowing 19 free passes, hitting an additional 7 batters, and giving up 7 home runs. This will have to be cleaned up prior to heading to Oxford this weekend or the Knights could be on the wrong end of another series. In dropping two games to FAU, Central Florida fell to #38 in the poll.
Although the scores were lopsided, the Knights had quite a few bright spots at the plate, batting over .300 as a team in the series. Alex Freeland, a College Baseball Nation Preseason Freshman All-American, led the charge, batting .545 with a home run. Four other Knights were above the .300 mark, but something to keep an eye on is the power displayed in the lineup. After the opening weekend, they are ranked second in the country in home runs with 8. The only team ranked ahead of them is Troy, but the Trojans have played four games compared to three for the Knights.
Matt's Prediction: The Rebels will take care of business this weekend in Oxford. The lineup that UCF will be facing is much more potent than Florida Atlantic, which the Knights gave up 38 runs to in three games. Not to mention, the Ole Miss pitching staff is one of the best in the country. Rebels win at least 2 games, but a sweep would not surprise me one bit.