Helsel fits in, fills in at Ole Miss

It took awhile for Christian Helsel to end up playing baseball at Mississippi, but it hasn’t taken long for the Altoona Area High School graduate to find a spot in the lineup – even if his position in it seems to change constantly.

Ole Miss, which opened the year ranked No. 14 in the nation, began the 2013 season Feb. 15 against No. 12 TCU, the team to which Helsel originally committed but decided to part with after the Horned Frogs announced they were going to enter the Big East. TCU has since opted to join the Big 12.

Helsel didn’t make his collegiate debut until the Rebels’ fourth game against Tennessee-Martin but took special notice of the series against the team for which he could have been playing.

“I feel great about my decision to play at Mississippi. I love everything about this place,” Helsel said. “I couldn’t be any happier. We swept TCU in our first series, and that made me feel even better.”

Helsel went 0-for-3 in his first game and didn’t play much in the first third of Mississippi’s season. He picked up his first collegiate hit in the Rebels’ ninth game, a 7-2 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Feb. 27.

“It’s a huge adjustment going from high school to the Southeastern Conference,” Helsel said. “Facing our own pitchers in the fall, I didn’t do very well, and that’s why I wasn’t playing early. I had to make some huge adjustments to my mechanics and approach to hit this pitching.

“The biggest difference is that you don’t get many pitches to hit. You probably get one good pitch to hit per at bat, and you have to hit that pitch.”

Mississippi coach Mike Bianco said early struggles are common for freshmen in the SEC.

“A lot of people don’t realize what a jump it is from high school to Division I baseball, much less the SEC, which is the No. 1 collegiate baseball conference,” Bianco said. “It’s a different atmosphere. It usually takes freshmen some time, but he’s shown that he’s obviously talented.

“He was just inconsistent at first, and he didn’t have confidence. But now, with more playing time, his confidence has grown.”

That extra playing time began once Bianco discovered how versatile Helsel is when playing the infield.

“We were in extras against Arkansas, and we needed a first baseman,” Bianco said. “He told me he could play first. I wasn’t sure if he’d actually ever played there when he said it, but he did a good job.”

A few weeks later, the Rebels’ regular shortstop pulled his hamstring against Tennessee, and Helsel started the final two games of the series.

“Even though he played shortstop in high school, Christian was recruited to play second and maybe some outfield here,” Bianco said. “But we gave him a shot, because of his offensive potential, and he did really well.”

Helsel has appeared at third, shortstop, second and first base as a freshman. Through Thursday, Helsel had played in 26 of Ole Miss’ 49 games and started 13. He was 12-for-50 (.240) with a pair of doubles, three runs scored, six RBIs and a .316 on-base percentage.

The highlight of Helsel’s season to date was exactly that, a highlight on the top plays of ESPN’s SportsCenter.

“I was playing second, and there was a ground ball up the middle,” Helsel said. “I got up quickly and kind of threw it from a split.

“I didn’t see it personally, but I got some tweets from people back home I hadn’t talked to in a long time. My mom and dad both called me. It was pretty cool to be on SportsCenter.”

Helsel has done enough to get consistent playing time for the 33-16 Rebels, who entered their series against Auburn last weekend ranked No. 18.

“He’s done a terrific job and filled in at a lot of different positions,” Bianco said. “He’s made some tremendous defensive plays and got some big bunts down for us.”

The SEC Tournament starts May 21.

“I just want to keep playing my best,” Helsel said. “My overall goal and our team goal is to win the SEC tourney and win the national championship, and those are still achievable goals for us.”