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Examining the 2020 Ole Miss baseball starting lineup

With so much roster turnover on the Ole Miss baseball team, there are several question marks heading into opening weekend against No. 1 Louisville.

Some lineup spots – see catcher, shortstop and third base – are bonafide locks heading into opening weekend. Others are as up-in-the-air as they’ve been in some time heading into the start of the season in Oxford.

Surely, many of these questions will be answered as the season progresses, and a more stable starting nine will emerge. But for now, ahead of a massive opening weekend series, let’s take a look at the lineup according to what head coach Mike Bianco established on Tuesday’s media day.

The Starting Nine:

Catcher: Hayden Dunhurst (Fr.)

Just a freshman, Hayden Dunhurst took very little time to establish himself offensively as one of the more solidified Rebel starters at a position that head coach Mike Bianco admitted the team asks a lot of defensively.

“We’re tough on catchers,” Bianco said. “When I say that, I mean demanding. He’s been able to take the coaching and understand his role. He’s able to get the signals.”

Sophomore Knox Loposer will be Dunhurst’s backup behind the plate, but the starting nod goes to the freshman.

First Base: Cael Baker (Jr.) or Tim Elko (Jr.)

A junior college transfer, Cael Baker spent his 2019 at Wabash Valley College after spending 2018 at the University of Cincinnati. A year ago, he was named the NJCAA Player of the Year, given to the best JuCo player in the nation, after hitting .506 with 101 runs batted in.

Baker emerged slowly in his time on campus, but Bianco insists he’s come around and started hitting much better these last few weeks. There are two others – Tim Elko and Kevin Graham – who have starting experience in an Ole Miss uniform at first base, and could also slot in here.

Second Base: Justin Bench (So.) or Peyton Chatagnier (Fr.)

Along with the outfield spots, second base is one of the spots with a big question mark heading into opening weekend. As a freshman in 2019, Justin Bench made three starts at second base and appeared in 14 games. He would’ve played more, if not for a broken hand that caused him to miss nearly two months. The issue with Bench’s freshman year is that he hit just .200.

Chatagnier, a freshman out of Texas, is one of five Rebels listed as both an infielder and outfielder on the roster. An athletic shortstop recruit, his ability at the plate should get him some consideration here at second base or at one of the outfield positions.

Third Base: Tyler Keenan (Jr.)

There’s no question here or at shortstop. Tyler Keenan started all 68 games a year ago, 67 of them at third base.

Shortstop: Anthony Servideo (Jr.)

Like with Keenan, Anthony Servideo is locked into the everyday shortstop position. With Grae Kessinger anchoring the shortstop position a year ago, Servideo still made 60 starts, rotating between second base and the outfield. Now, he’s back at shortstop.

Left Field: Hayden Leatherwood (Jr.) or Kevin Graham (So.)
Center Field: Jerrion Ealy (Fr.)
Right Field: Peyton Chatagnier (Fr.) or John Rhys Plumlee (Fr.)

Ole Miss is replacing all three outfielders from a year ago. Thomas Dillard is playing pro ball, Ryan Olenek graduated and Anthony Servideo is now playing shortstop. A lot of turnover means a lot of question marks, something Bianco acknowledged heading into opening weekend. Freshman Jerrion Ealy – yes, the same Ealy who broke out as a running back on the football team – is the only player Bianco said is locked into playing time in some regards against Louisville. He’s played most of his time in the intersquad scrimmages at center.

Hayden Leatherwood, another Northwest Mississippi Community College transfer, is a power bat who Bianco acknowledged playing a lot better now in the spring than he did in the fall. John Rhys Plumlee, another football name, will likely get on the field against Louisville as will Chatagnier, who is battling with Bench for that second base role.

Other outfield possibilities: Cade Sammons, Justin Bench

Designated Hitter: Kevin Graham (So.) or Tim Elko (Jr.)

Kevin Graham’s bat will be in the Ole Miss lineup somewhere. As a freshman, he made 55 appearances and started 38 games. Twenty of his starts came at first base, where he will likely see time this year as well. The other 18 starts came as a designated hitter, where he hit 10 home runs as a freshman.

Weekend Pitching Rotation:

Friday: Doug Nikhazy (So.)
Saturday: Gunnar Hoglund (So.)
Sunday: Derek Diamond (Fr.)

Where many spots in the starting nine seem in flux, the pitching rotation is pretty set in stone. After being charged with a misdemeanor DUI last week, sophomore Doug Nikhazy will be starting on opening weekend. Bianco emphasized the punishment for Nikhazy was “severe” but that it would remain internal and not cause him to miss a start.

Nikhazy and Hoglund, after both starting the majority of the season last year as true freshmen, combined for a 12-6 record. Nikhazy, specifically went the entire year with a 3.31 ERA and breaking the Ole Miss freshmen strikeout record. The two are locks for Friday and Saturday.

Ranked as the nation’s No. 13 right handed pitching prospect by Perfect Game, Derek Diamond is slated to slot into the Rebel weekend rotation as a true freshman in similar fashion that Hoglund did a year ago by starting day one on Sundays. The right-hander boasts a mid-90s fastball and a solid curve.

Other critical arms:

Greer Holston (Sr.)
Austin Miller (Sr.)
Taylor Broadway (Sr.)
Max Coiffi (Jr.)

Greer Holston is in the midst of a bit of a renaissance. Call it the yips or simply regression, Holston was able to get into just one single game as a junior after making 41 appearances over his first two seasons at Ole Miss. Whatever the cause of Holston’s peculiar 2019, he’s back and going to be a major contributor this year. Bianco says he looks just like his freshman and sophomore year and that he could either start or come out of the bullpen, but that the team is “working to get his innings up.” A phrase like that makes one think Holston could be in for mid-week starts. The other three names, all upperclassman, will be the critical bullpen arms for the Rebels.