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No. 14 Diamond Rebs host Houston in non-conference weekend finale

Alex Edwards/The Daily Mississippian


The No. 14 Ole Miss Rebel baseball team will host the Houston Cougars (6-6) this weekend in its final non-conference weekend series of the season from Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field.

The Rebels (10-2) and the Cougars have met five times, with Ole Miss holding a 4-1 advantage in the all-time series, including a two-out-of-three series win at Houston this past season. Houston was picked to finish fifth in Conference USA by the league’s coaches. Senior designated hitter Zach Kirksey played in two of those games this past season and went 4-for-5 with a home run, three RBI and two runs scored in the series.

Houston, which has a 0-1 record on the road this season, enters Oxford with a lot of confidence after taking two out of three this past weekend in the Houston College Classic, with wins against Southeastern Conference opponents in Tennessee and No. 4 Arkansas. However, Houston dropped a mid-week loss to Louisiana-Lafayette on Tuesday. 

On the mound, sophomore right-hander Bobby Wahl will look to bounce back on Friday night from his worst performance of the season last week against Miami (Ohio). So far this season, Wahl (2-0) holds a 2.64 earned run average with 18 strikeouts in 17 innings pitched. For Houston, senior right-hander Jared Ray will get the Friday night start. He was named Conference USA Pitcher of the Week after giving up one run on five hits with a career-high 10 strikeouts against Tennessee. In three starts this season, he has a 1.42 earned run average with 20 strikeouts in 19 innings pitched.

Senior right-hander RJ Hively hopes to build off a solid outing this past weekend when he goes head to head against senior left-hander Jordan Lewis on Saturday. Hively (2-0) enters the weekend with a 2.87 earned run average over 15.2 innings where he has struck out an impressive 20 batters while Lewis (2-1) holds a earned run average of 2.16 in 16.2 innings pitched. 

On Sunday, sophomore righty Mike Mayers, coming off his first win of the season, will take to the mound. Mayers (1-1) has an earned run average of 3.94 in 16.0 innings of work and has looked dominant, aside from a couple of innings, all season. Opponents are only hitting .200 against Mayers this season. His counterpart on Sunday will be Houston’s freshman right-hander Aaron Garza (1-1), who holds a 3.77 earned run average through 14.1 innings pitched. 

At the plate, the Cougars boast a .276 team batting average and score an average of 4.5 runs per game while Ole Miss is hitting .317 as a team and averages more than eight runs per game. 

Senior shortstop Jake Runte leads Houston with a .341 average, followed by junior second baseman Chase Jensen, who was selected to the preseason All-Conference-USA team, with a .333 bating average. Outside of Runte and Jensen, no other Houston player with more than 20 at-bats is hitting over .300. 

The series opener tonight is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Saturday’s first pitch is set for 1:30 p.m., and Sunday’s contest will start at noon. 

Hively gaining confidence

After hitting some rough spots in his first couple of starts of the year, Hively has settled down and become a steady arm on Saturdays for the Rebels, and that has given him a great deal of confidence heading into an SEC-type series against Houston this weekend.

“The biggest thing for confidence is defense,” Hively said. “When your defense plays (like they’ve been playing), it allows you to throw the ball in the zone with a lot more confidence and conviction, and when you do that, you get a lot more outs.”

Hively has been known to struggle when he gets behind in counts, so his main focus on the mound is to stay ahead of hitters.

“One thing that (head) coach (Mike) Bianco said was to just fill up the zone,” he said. “The past two weekends, I really haven’t fallen behind. When you get ahead, you get a lot of outs early. That’s why I kept my pitch count low and kept the energy in the dugout.”

After signing with Cal State Fullerton out of high school and redshirting his freshman year, Hively went to Santa Ana Junior College to try to get another opportunity to be a weekend starter in college baseball. Now he’s fulfilled that dream, and Hively couldn’t be happier.

“I had a chance to go pro,” he noted. “But the two things that haunted over me were one, I wanted to get my degree, and two, I didn’t think I’d ever be fully satisfied with myself if I didn’t try.

“I never really got an opportunity at the first college I was at. Junior college ball was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. But it was nothing compared to Division I. Last year was a disappointment. It kind of fuels the fire for this year, getting better and never being satisfied. Honestly, it’s a dream come true, and I’m honored to have the chance to be on the weekend this year.”

Anderson improving at short

Sophomore shortstop Austin Anderson only had one hit for the season heading into Tuesday’s blowout win against UT-Martin, but in that contest, he came away with three hits and looks to turn a corner heading into the rest of the season.

“I’ve been working with coach (Cliff) Godwin all fall and ever since I got back (from semester break),” Anderson said. “He’s been working with my swing all year and it’s finally coming through a little bit. I’ve been hitting late at night with (junior second baseman Alex) Yarbrough and (junior catcher Kody) Sepulveda, trying to get some extra swings in, and it’s finally paying off.”

Although Anderson hasn’t tallied a lot of hits this season, that’s not to say he hasn’t been making good contact with the ball. Unfortunately for him, those hard-hit balls haven’t been finding holes.

“It is frustrating, but it’s just a part of baseball,” Anderson said. “It happens. You can’t get too up when you’re doing good, and you can’t get too down when you’re not succeeding. But the ball is dropping a little bit now.”