Ole Miss will play Florida International in Miami the next three days, and these aren’t always these easiest of times. But he believes in them.
“We call it a business trip,” Bianco said as his team prepared to leave.
And so it is. The players agree and say so too. Miami sounds nice, but there isn’t a lot of time for anything other than sticking to the itinerary and playing baseball.
Most of these early-season, non-conference trips have been by plane, like to UCLA or Minnesota, Houston or TCU. Tulane three years ago was a rare bus trip for a weekend like this.
They’ll first and foremost try to win three baseball games. But they’ll also try to get accustomed to what it means to travel as a team of college baseball players, coaches, and staff.
“We’ve done these trips every year I’ve been here except for one,” Bianco said. “And that year it wasn’t by design. It just kind of happened that way.”
There have been weather delay situations and challenges, like the Minnesota and TCU trips where snow, ice, and rain have all played a part. The Minnesota trip was a tournament in the Metrodome, so the games were played. It was the travel and the snow outside that was the problem.
At TCU in 2008 there was a day’s delay in leaving Oxford because of ice and wintry conditions and the games were delayed a day. Last year’s trip to Ft. Worth had one game rained out completely.
Bianco said travel for a weekend baseball series is unlike a lot of other sports that fans are familiar with. But he believes in the long run it’s a good experience for his team. Certainly in Miami, there will be no winter weather to have to deal with.
“It’s so different than football or basketball where it all leads up to one game,” he said. “We play three games. So mentally you’re up and down, up and down. We practice on Thursday (in Miami). Then you have all day Friday. Then play Friday. Then Saturday you sit for a while, then you play, then you’ve got some free time. Then play Sunday. So it’s being able to lock in and be ready, and when the time is that they’re called upon, play baseball.”
The Rebels, 8-1 this season, had some trouble locking in against Memphis earlier this week. A number of mental and physical miscues accounted for a 4-3 loss to the Tigers. The Rebels, ranked eighth by Baseball America again this week, rebounded with a not necessarily impressive 7-2 win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff Wednesday.
But the Rebels are playing a lot of players, using a lot of pitchers, especially some young ones, and trying to get everybody ready for the wars of the Southeastern Conference season while also winning games now. And there are some injuries that they’re dealing with, and the return of some of those players can help later.
Here are some of Bianco’s comments about those players’ current status.
Third starter Chris Ellis, the sophomore right-hander who has fought a pulled abdominal muscle for nearly a month: "Ellis threw a little on flat ground (Wednesday). We'll try a bullpen (Thursday). Hopefully he'll get the start on Sunday, and probably throw only a couple of innings just to try to work him back into it, not necessarily pitch count. That's part of it, but moreso that we don't push him, that we don't go too far with the pulled ab situation."
Second base/versatile player senior John Gatlin on his separated shoulder from practice in late January: "He's done well. He's swinging 100 percent. He's had some good days and bad days about how it's felt. He's starting to field the ball. I don't think he's that far away from possibly getting on the field."
Sophomore RHP Hawtin Buchanan has made one appearance this season and pitched one inning. He has experienced some inflammation and didn’t travel this weekend. They will monitor his progress in the days ahead.
Freshman RHP Jacob Waguespack hasn't pitched this season. He is now shut down for two weeks with elbow tendonitis. When he's available is simply based on how the elbow is after two weeks.
As for the opponent this weekend, FIU is 7-2 after hosting Texas Tech this midweek and splitting a pair of games.
The Panthers swept Stony Brook to open the season, the same Stony Brook that won the Super Regional at LSU last season and advanced to the College World Series.
FIU then lost 1-0 to Bethune-Cookman, but Ole Miss fans know Bethune-Cookman historically has a good baseball program. They were in the NCAA Regional at Ole Miss in 2006.
The Panthers swept Manhattan last weekend before hosting the Red Raiders.
FIU is coached by a legendary name in college baseball, for those who keep up with the sport nationally. Henry “Turtle” Thomas is in his sixth season as head coach with the Panthers after a journeyman’s career as a college assistant – at Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami, LSU, and Arizona State.
“They’ll play hard and they’re always offensive. He’s a tremendous recruiter,” Bianco said of Thomas. “His whole career he’s been noted as one of the best recruiters in the country, from his time at Georgia Tech to Miami to LSU. They’ll be very good.”
Florida International is scheduled to start junior right-hander Mike Ellis (7.45 ERA, 1-0, two starts) today. There’s a lefty set to go Saturday, junior Tyler Alexander (0.00 ERA, 1-0, two starts), and on Sunday junior righty Mike Franco (7.71 ERA, 1-0, two starts).
The Rebels will counter with Bobby Wahl, Mike Mayers, and, it appears at this point, Chris Ellis.
FIU is batting .329 as a team, led by a couple of .400-plus hitters currently – freshman Edwin Rios (.455) and sophomore Julius Gaines (.414).
Game times are 5 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 12 noon Sunday (all times listed are central time zone).
“Florida International is going to be a huge challenge,” Bianco said. “They’re very good. So we’re on the road. It’s tough on the road. We have to learn how to win games on the road. That’s part of what this trip is all about.”