Monday, February 5, 2007

Will Kline Clear Ace of Rebels Pitching Staff

What a difference a year makes.One year ago, the Ole Miss baseball team went into the season with lots of questions on a pitching staff that had just lost its top six pitchers and was without a clear-cut ace.At that same juncture, right-hander Will Kline, then a sophomore, entered the season with lots of potential (people on the team constantly talked about how good his “stuff” was in intra-squad practices) but even more questions (a career 2-2 record and 8.15 ERA entering the 2006 season).Now, after a year in which he spent the final two months of the season as the Rebels’ top pitcher, Kline enters the 2007 baseball season, which begins Feb. 10, as the firmly established ace on a staff that is believed to be the strength of the No. 18 Rebels.“Going into this year, everything is understood and people know what their roles are unlike last year when it was a question mark of who was going to throw where and what,” Kline said.Kline proved his critics wrong in 2006 beginning with the Mayor’s Trophy Game in Jackson April 11 in which he held Mississippi State scoreless for seven innings. The right-hander’s confidence blossomed, and by the time the Rebels began their post-season run, he was the team’s ace. He then helped carry the team to its second consecutive Super Regional appearance. He finished the season with a 5-2 record and a 3.71 ERA over 68.0 innings.His was a highly-sought prospect for professional baseball and was Major League Baseball draft-eligible as a third-year sophomore but informed teams prior to the draft that he would be staying in Oxford for another season of college baseball.The Houston Astros drafted him anyway in the 39th round. Kline said thanks, but no thanks.“2006 was awesome,” Kline said, looking back. “Many good things happened to me and my family on and off the field.“The way the season ended up last year with this team struggling as we did at the start and turning it on at the end and winning the SEC Tournament. It was just a thrill.”Kline now No. 1 starterAs much as Kline grew in confidence last season, the question is how much does it help him having an entire off-season to soak it in and to enter his junior season knowing that his role is to be the team’s No. 1 starter.“It makes you a little more nervous because you know the importance of (starting the series openers on) Friday nights and being considered the ace of a staff,” Kline said. “There are a lot of great arms on this team, and I wouldn’t set myself above any of the other ones.”Pitching coach Kyle Bunn said there is a benefit to a pitcher knowing early in the off-season that he’ll likely be a weekend starter. For one, it gives Kline three weeks of practice to prepare for weekend starts before the season opener. Then it gives him potentially five starts to get things right before the Southeastern Conference opener.“Last year, he is trying to find his niche here,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “What is my role, what am I going to do and how many innings am I going to get?“This year, his mindset is different in how he’s going to win the first game and being a leader and those type of things.” Kline; who spent the summer in Oxford taking a class, working out and letting his arm rest; said he’s worked to refine his three pitches.“I’ve just tried to make the things that I already have better and just be able to locate a fastball better, sharper slider, better changeup,” Kline said.Kline, the only pitcher entering his fourth year in the program, is clearly a leader on the staff off the field too. He said he’s tried to teach the younger pitchers things he learned from guys like Mark Holliman, Matt Maloney, Anthony Cupps and Eric Fowler about how to treat the game with respect.“I think he carries a seriousness and a passion that a lot of those guys carried on the field,” Bunn said.“I also think he carries that confidence that allows him to be, some people call it goofy and some people call it funny and some people call if fun to be around. I think he gained that confidence from those guys, and it’s much easier to play this game when you’re confident.”It was also last year’s success that went a long way in helping Kline nurture that confidence.“I guess I figured things out mentally last year,” Kline said. “I was able to go out and perform the way I figured I could.“I felt like last year really pushed me over the edge and made me a more confident person and a more confident pitcher and hopefully that will benefit this team this year.”

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