OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss has been plagued by the lack of a noteworthy third starter in recent years, but head coach Mike Bianco thinks that puzzle is complete this season with Chris Ellis.
The Birmingham (Spain Park), Ala., native flashed excellent numbers during 31.2 innings of work as a freshman, compiling a 2.84 ERA with 29 strikeouts, eight walks and holding opponents to a .218 batting average against.
Ellis won his only start last season, a four-inning outing against Jackson State but also picked up wins against Georgia, Murray State and UNC-Wilmington. The 6-foot-5 right-hander was taken in the 50th round by the Dodgers in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft, one of nine Ole Miss signees to turn down a professional franchise for college.
Pitching coach Carl Lafferty told Ellis Sunday he would start Sunday at 12 p.m. against No. 14 TCU. The No. 13 Rebels and Horned Frogs begin the series at 4 p.m. Friday and play against at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
"It's a great opportunity," Ellis said. "I really appreciate coach Bianco for giving me the opportunity to pitch. It's something I'm grateful for. We have other guys like Josh Laxer and Sam (Smith) and Tanner Bailey, who was great competition for it."
The solid rookie season set the tone for the advanced assignment as a sophomore, and he followed that up by being named a top prospect in the Cal Ripken League over the summer. Ellis was the No. 2 prospect, according to Perfect Game, and the No. 1 prospect for his draft year. He went undefeated in seven starts and struck out 10 during a win in the league championship series.
Ellis should sit in the 90s after a bump in velocity since last summer. His slider continues to improve and now his changeup is a workable pitch.
"Really towards the end of summer ball, in the last couple of outings, he seemed to take another step more steps forward," Bianco said. "Since Chris got back, he's different. You can tell just by the way he walks around. He doesn't look like a freshman anymore or even a sophomore that's trying to find himself still. He walks around like an SEC starter. Certainly he's always had the stuff. The stuff has always been in him, you just don't know when it's going to come out."
Ellis only threw the changeup "once or twice: last season but is comfortable with it now. During the summer he also lengthened his stride, something that started with Lafferty last season and was Craig Lopez, Ellis' pitching coach with the Redbirds.
"We added about a foot to my stride and that added velocity," Ellis said. "I'm about a foot closer to the plate."
Ellis allowed five runs in 18 intrasquad innings during the fall, holding opponents to a .169 batting average. He also had 12 strikeouts and five walks.
"It certainly looks like he's taking a huge step forward," Bianco said. "He's looking like the guy we always thought he'd be."
ABOUT THE HORNED FROGS: This is the third multi-game meeting between Ole Miss and TCU in the past year and fifth since 2008. The Horned Frogs lead the series 6-3 during this stretch.
TCU lost some offense off last season's super regional team but returns a group of frontline arms. On Friday, the Horned Frogs will counter Bobby Wahl with Brandon Finnegan, a power left-hander, who will run his fastball into the mid 90s. He's had some control issues in the past, so it'll be important for Ole Miss to not help him. He's dominant in plus situations.
"Finnegan is pitching as well as any lefthander has pitched on our campus, and that includes (Matt) Purke," TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle said to Baseball America. "How he pitches and handles his emotions in a great SEC environment remains to be seen. But he's throwing more strikes at the bottom of the zone, with three pitches. He's really matured off the field-I think he's got a chance to be special."
Sophomore Preston Morris gets the Saturday assignment for TCU against Mike Mayers. Morrison is a right-hander sidewinder, who went 9-2 with a 2.08 ERA as a freshman. He picked up a win and two no-decisions against Ole Miss last season.
Serviceable right-hander Stefan Crichton rounds out TCU's rotation, and Andrew Mitchell in back in the closer role. Mitchell started the season opener against Ole Miss last season, taking the loss, but his power assortment should play well out of the bullpen.
Defensively TCU lost its outfield and catcher but returns talent around the infield, including first baseman Kevin Cron, who has tremendous raw power in the middle of the lineup.
"We know these guys, and it'll be a challenge and a great series," Bianco said. "Hopefully we won't see them again for a while, but we're excited for this weekend."