The ball sizzled past the flailing bat as Dallas Woolfolk’s momentum carried him off the mound and into his customary come-at-me-bro amble. The miles-per-hour box on the scoreboard flashed 94.
A one-inning midweek outing against an Arkansas-Pine Bluff team with an RPI on the wrong side of 250 isn’t usually something worth talking about. But for Woolfolk, who’s gone from one of the country’s preeminent closers to a scuffling reserve arm in the span of two months, Wednesday’s 1-2-3, two-strikeout eighth inning sure looked like a step in the right direction. It’s among a couple of developments that give hope that Ole Miss’ struggling bullpen may be shaping up in time for a postseason run.
After posting a 2.15 ERA and 12 saves in 2017, Woolfolk entered this season on the watch list for the country’s top stopper. He jumped out to a hot start against non-con opponents, but a declining velocity and the rise of fellow reliever Parker Caracci knocked Woolfolk out of the closer role. Without the usual MPH on his fastball, he soon looked like a shell of himself and was getting shelled by SEC batters. Rock bottom came three weeks ago in Nashville, when he entered with a one-run lead in extra-innings and was yanked without recording an out after giving up a homer and a single to the only batters he faced. He’s allowed three earned runs and eight hits in just 3.1 conference innings this season.
For an inning on Wednesday, at least, Woolfolk looked like his old self. He pounded the strike zone with a fastball that sat at 93-94 and balanced it with well-placed breaking balls. His two punch-outs were vintage Woolfolk: high, roaring fastballs that coaxed helpless swings.
“That came back naturally with confidence,” Woolfolk told reporters when asked about the velocity spike. “It has helped me get along this rough ride, but I am back. It has been about clearing the mind, having positive thoughts and getting back to my roots.”
“He was impressive,” Mike Bianco said. “It was nice to see and certainly a piece that would be nice to have back in the bullpen. Looked good, looked confident and not just velo, but just stuff and command. He looked more like himself.”
If Woolfolk can keep that up, it could go a long way in stabilizing a Rebel bullpen that as a whole has failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations. The pen recently blew five straight save innings and Caracci, who’s had his own struggles as the closer, is the only regular reliever with an SEC ERA under 4.
The other piece of good news on Wednesday was that Houston Roth, who hasn’t taken the mound since injuring a hamstring two weeks ago, threw a bullpen session and is “ready to pitch” this weekend in South Carolina, according to Bianco. The righty has been a bit up-and-down as a sophomore (4.17 ERA) but provides quality depth. He was the midweek starter for most of the year before Bianco, searching for reliable relief arms, moved him to the pen full-time.
Roth providing quality innings should lessen the strain on other arms, particularly that of Will Ethridge. Ethridge has lived double life this season: ruthlessly efficiently when rested but shaky and unreliable when not. As noted by Chase Parham of Rivals, he’s been a completely different pitcher in his first outing of a weekend versus his second. Thomas Dillard’s three-run jack and Caracci’s cardiac close got all of the attention in last Saturday’s big win over LSU, but it was Ethridge (in his first and only appearance of the weekend) quietly putting up zeros for five innings that made the rally possible.
The Rebels have tough series against South Carolina and Auburn before closing the regular season against Bama. If a healthy Roth can lead to a rested Ethridge and a resurgent Woolfolk can pair with Caracci to reliably shut the door, the Ole Miss bullpen will head into the postseason looking a lot more like the force we expected it to be. With the offense raking the way it is, Bianco doesn’t need his pen to be lights out. He just needs it to hold its own.