OXFORD | Ole Miss’ defensive lineup has been a mixed bag with varying results this season, and Mike Bianco’s Tuesday tinkering against Arkansas Pine Bluff may have foreshadowed this weekend versus Missouri.
Sophomore Nick Fortes, who has been at catcher recently in place of heralded freshman Cooper Johnson, saw his first action at first base against the Lions. He had only practiced one day at the position prior to that game, but he could be back there starting tonight when the Rebels (23-14, 7-8) host the Tigers (26-12, 7-8) at 6:30 p.m.
Fortes to first base would put Johnson back behind the plate, where he was a regular until March 25 when his early-season elite defense waned. He’s hitting .137 on the season and .133 in conference play.
Johnson has thrown out 7-of-16 runners attempting to steal and also has several pickoffs on his resume. Four of the successful steals came in the middle game of the Kentucky series — the final start for Johnson before Fortes took over on a regular basis. Fortes has successfully thrown out 5-of-14 runners.
Bianco said Johnson has handled his recent demotion with maturity. He had only five at-bats since March 24 prior to the start against Pine Bluff.
“It’s tough, especially on guys as talented as him,” Bianco said. “They’ve never been in this position and never struggled and never sat. It happens. He hasn’t played well and Nick has played as well as anyone on the team.”
Johnson had a season-high four assists on Tuesday, and Bianco is thinking of keeping Fortes at first and Johnson behind the plate for at least part of the Missouri series, as the Tigers lead the SEC with 62 stolen bases.
Fortes had six putouts at the corner infield spot and handled plays around the bag effectively. Some of the finer points were less than perfect, but that was expected considering the limited practice time.
“It sounds funny, but most catchers can usually handle it,” Bianco said. “When I asked him if he could do it, he kind of laughed, but my bigger concerns are bunt defenses and different things in a close game. He forgot to be a cutoff man on a base hit. Everybody thinks you have to catch the ball and stretch and that’s what we did in practice, but there are a lot of little things you’d forget if you didn’t play there everyday.”
Fortes is hitting .429 with a 1.179 OPS in league play. The highest ranked recruit in last year’s class has a hit in seven of his last eight games and RBIs in four of his last five.
Cole Zabowski and Chase Cockrell, who have played the majority of the innings at first base this season, are hitting .190 and .167, respectively, in SEC games.
Colby Bortles has also played first base on occasion, but that move puts Kyle Watson at third base, and he’s batting .158 while having one hit in 12 conference at-bats.
Missouri: Friday - Jr. RHP Tanner Houck (3-5, 2.93 ERA); Saturday - So. LHP Michael Plassmeyer (4-1, 3.71 ERA); Sunday - Jr. RHP Bryce Montes De Oca (3-2, 3.06 ERA)
Ole Miss: Friday - So. RHP James McArthur (2-2, 3.03 ERA); Saturday - Jr. LHP David Parkinson (5-2, 2.68 ERA); Sunday - Fr. LHP Ryan Rolison (4-2, 2.19 ERA)