If the baseball drifts too far inside, Ryan Olenek hopes it is elevated. It gives him time to recoil and brace for the impending sting.
“The upper body you have time to tense up,” Olenek said. “The lower body you cannot really tense anything up.”
The senior centerfielder has been hit by a pitch 16 times this season, one off the SEC lead and tied for 45th nationally. Dayton’s Michael Cleary has been hit 28 times in 59 games. Kentucky’s Ryan Shinn has been hit 17 times and leads the SEC. Olenek has been hit 39 times in his career, an occurrence that has become more frequent this season and at times feels more like a formality than an anomaly.
“Why does the skinniest kid on the field get hit so much?,” Olenek often wonders.
He answered his own question by citing how close he stands to the plate. Olenek doesn’t operate in fear of the ball, even if it is hurled at him with less than a second to react. He does not aim to get hit but he also does not avoid it. It helps his team and his on-base percentage. If an opposing pitcher wants to throw inside, Olenek is not going to be brushed back by the high velocity.
“I don’t really get out of the way,” Olenek said. “It is not like I try to get hit but I am not going to jump away from it if it is inside. I don’t know. I really like getting hit. Just hit me in the upper body. Anything lower body will break me.
“It’s a free base. It helps with the average and the on-base percentage. It helps the team. Nothing bad has ever come out of it than a couple of lingering injuries.”
Just last week in Hoover, Olenek took a fastball off the front portion of his left knee and a slider off the back portion. He claims the slider hurt worse. He was pegged in back-to-back games and three times total in six games at the SEC Tournament. Earlier this year In February game at Tulane, he was hit twice.
Beyond writhing in pain in the immediate aftermath of being plunked, Olenek rarely misses time due to the bumps and bruises he’s accumulated. The only instance that has cost him significant was getting hit on the left hip against Florida. The next week against Kentucky, he fell on the same hip after crashing into the wall tracking a fly ball and missed the next four games.
Olenek is one away from 40, perhaps enough to develop a hypothesis that there is is some sort of magnetic force between the seams and his body.
“People don’t like him,” head coach Mike Bianco joked. “No, I think people throw him inside. A lot of long limbs and body parts hanging over, even though he is skinny.”
Olenek says he did remember getting hit as often in high school and believes it is a phenomenon that began in college. Olenek missed the final regular season series at Swayze Field against Mississippi with a virus so violent he was bed ridden for four days. Two weeks ago, it appeared he had missed his last chance to play baseball in Oxford. After a run in Hoover that changed the trajectory of Ole Miss’s season, he gets one more chance.
“I wouldn’t want to play baseball anywhere else,” Olenek said. “I picked here to come to school and play ball. It only feels right to host another regional here and try to get a couple wins and get out of here.”
Ole Miss rotation will remain the same for the Oxford Regional, beginning with Will Ethridge getting the ball against Jacksonville State.
Mike Bianco didn’t yet know his rotation when he met with the media on Monday moments after learning the Rebels’ opponents, and there was a possibility he may make an adjustment with Ethridge having pitched three times in two weeks, including a 36-pitch relief outing in Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Championship game, but elected to keep the rotation in tact.
“Pretty much the same schedule,” Ethridge said. “Took the day off after I threw, long toss and then I threw short work yesterday to get me ready for tomorrow.”
Doug Nikhazy will pitch in game two and Gunnar Hoglund will presumably pitch the Rebels’ third game of the weekend. It is not uncommon for a one seed to hold its ace against an inferior four seed, but Jacksonville State does not fit the profile of a prototypical overmatched automatic qualifier. The Gamecocks have won 12 games in a row, boast an 89 RPI and have beaten two SEC teams this season in six games. They will throw Garrett Farmer, a right-hander with a 2.24 ERA, 104 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 100.2 innings.
“Not a lot of flaws in that team,” Bianco said. “Really pitches it with an ace with over 100 innings. I think it will be a huge challenge for our offense.”
Tyler Keenan participated in practice on Thursday and the team is hopeful he will be in the lineup on Friday evening. Keenan threw across the infield from third base, though not yet at full speed, according to Bianco, and appears to be unhindered in batting practice.
“Shoulder is doing better,” Bianco said. “I think he will be fine.”
First pitch on Friday is slated for 7 P.M.