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No. 16 Diamond Rebels face No. 1 Florida in weekend showdown

Alex Edwards/The Daily Mississippian

If No. 16 Ole Miss (18-7, 3-3 SEC) thought its first two weekends of Southeastern Conference action was tough, it’ll think this weekend is nearly impossible as the Florida Gators (23-2, 5-1 SEC), who are ranked No. 1 in the nation, come in to town for a three-game series starting tonight at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field.
“It’s another opportunity in the Southeastern Conference,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “It’s a big one for the fans and everybody because you’re playing the No. 1 team in the country. But, I think it’s important to be ourselves.
“I think it’s important to stay the course. It’s going to be an exciting weekend. The weather is going to be great, and there will be some great crowds.”
Coming into the weekend, Florida took two of three on the road from the defending national champions South Carolina this past weekend and defeated No. 4 Florida State for a second time on Tuesday, while Ole Miss took two of three at Alabama and shut out Jackson State, also on Tuesday.
Florida leads the all-time series 45-44 after a series sweep this past season in Gainesville.
On paper, the Gators and Rebels look similar at the plate. As a team, Florida is hitting .295 and averaging 7.1 runs per game, to go along with 37 home runs this season. Ole Miss is hitting .313 and averaging just under seven runs per game, while having hit 20 home runs this season.
The Gators are led at the plate by junior catcher Mike Zunino, who leads the team in batting average (.376), RBI (32) and home runs (9). He leads the SEC in home runs, ranks second in RBI and fifth in batting average, while Ole Miss senior designated hitter Zach Kirksey leads the league in RBI (33), ranks second in home runs (8) and junior second baseman Alex Yarbrough ranks third in batting average (.407).
On Friday night, sophomore right-hander Bobby Wahl will look to set the tone for the weekend, but it won’t be easy going against junior right-hander Hudson Randall of the Gators. Wahl is a perfect 4-0 on the season with a 2.36 earned run average in 34.1 innings pitched with a team-leading 42 strikeouts. Randall is 3-0 on the year with a 3.41 earned run average in 37.0 innings. He has also totaled 34 strikeouts on the year.
Senior right-hander R.J. Hively will look to continue his dominance on the mound and opposes junior left-hander Brian Johnson on Saturday afternoon. Hively is 3-1 and leads the team with a 1.47 earned run average in 36.2 innings of work. Johnson is 4-0 with a 3.13 earned run average over 31.2 innings.
On Sunday afternoon, sophomore right-hander Mike Mayers goes up against sophomore right-hander Jonathan Crawford. Mayers has pitched better than his 2-2 record indicates this year. He holds a 3.47 earned run average in 36.1 innings pitched, and opponents are hitting just .205 against him. Crawford is 2-1 with a 3.95 earned run average over 27.1 innings.
Friday’s series opener is set for a 6:30 p.m. first pitch and will be televised on Sun Sports. Saturday’s game is set for 1:30 p.m., while Sunday’s series finale will start at 12:30 p.m.
A history of upsets
Ole Miss has a good history in series versus top-10 opponents at home, especially those ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The Rebels are a perfect 2-0 against top-ranked teams at home after defeating the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs in 2009 and the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks this past season. Dating back to 2003, Ole Miss has hosted 13 top-10 opponents, taking the series 10 of those 13 times.
“We’re really excited to play them,” Yarbrough said. “Their (lineup) 1 (through) 9 and their whole pitching staff is arguably the best team in the country. They’re going to have a lot of great arms they’re going to throw at us all weekend — a lot of power arms.
“1-9 in their lineup, they’re going to be about as strong as we’ll see all year. But, we’re just trying to focus on playing our game, playing the game the right way and playing hard. I think if we focus on that, we’ll be OK.”
Hometown motivation
If it weren’t enough to be playing the No. 1 team in the country, sophomore catcher Will Allen has some added motivation this weekend.
Allen hails from Gainesville, Fla., so he is very familiar with the visiting Gators.
“Obviously, I’m from there,” he said. “I’ve got great respect for their program and their coaches. Both of my parents went there, and my dad played football there. I grew up a Gator fan, but things change.
“I came up here one Friday night and fell in love with Ole Miss and Oxford. I’m just really looking forward to the opportunity to play them.”
Buchanan gaining confidence
Freshman Hawtin Buchanan has looked impressive in his last couple of appearances, including striking out the side in a perfect sixth inning against Jackson State on Tuesday night.
“Just getting some innings under my belt is really good for confidence,” Buchanan said.
In just 4.2 innings this season, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound right-hander has struck out 10 batters, while giving up just four hits.