Wright State’s pitcher was in trouble.
From over Bear Bellomy’s left shoulder hurtled the jeers of some 3,000 well-served Ole Miss students undeterred by the cold, rainy conditions of Opening Day in Oxford. To his right crouched Rebel speedster Ryan Olenek, slinking away from third base, eager to put Bellomy’s team in a 4-0 hole. Straight ahead loomed the imposing figure of Thomas Dillard, who last season crushed enough baseballs to be invited to the NCAA home run derby. A misplaced fastball or a hung slider would probably end up over the right field wall with the students.
Wright State’s head coach wasn’t gonna take that chance. He gestured to the ump, holding up four fingers. Dillard slung his bat to the side and trotted to first without a pitch being thrown.
Fans had just been introduced to college baseball’s new intentional walk rule.
No longer does a pitcher have to toss the ball four times to a standing catcher to give the batter a base. Just have the head coach signal to the ump and off he goes.
The rule is meant to speed up pace of play and realign the college game with the MLB, which implemented the same rule two years ago. Yes, those four tosses are usually a formality... but not always. Hell, on the very day the MLB announced its rule change, Texas A&M won on a walk-off wild pitch that was supposed to be a free pass.
But arguably the greatest unintentional-intentional walk-off in baseball history happened in Oxford.
On April 4, 2014, Ole Miss and Auburn were tied at five in the bottom of the 13th inning. With two men in scoring position and first base open, the Tigers decided to give Rebel slugger Austin Anderson a free pass. Anderson, a soon-to-be-named All-American, was tired of being walked. It’d already happened twice that game and a couple of those intentional balls had floated enticingly close to his reach.
So he was coiled and ready when the Auburn pitcher, aiming for the outstretched mitt of his standing catcher, left the ball over the plate.
Anderson knew it was gone by the time he finished his swing, casually pimping the bat to the side and strolling toward first. “THEY LEFT IT OVER THE PLATE! YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME,” roared Rebel play-by-play man David Kellum as his booth-mate Keith Kessinger sank into a fit of grade-school giggles.
“Remember earlier in the previous two at-bats?” Kellum asked as the Rebels dog piled at the plate. “He got dangerously close and this time Anderson thought, ‘Okay, you leave me a fat one and I’m gonna hit it.”
The ball bounded into a dumpster behind the right field wall, where it was retrieved and preserved by a student drunk enough to climb into a dumpster.
Anderson was just as incredulous as the rest of us. “He tried to sneak another one by me, and I just tried to hit it as hard and as far as I could,” he told the Clarion-Ledger after the game.
The Rebels, who had scuffled through the first half the season, went on to sweep Auburn, win six of their final seven conference series and advance to the College World Series for the first time in over four decades.
The NCAA’s new rule will speed up games. It also takes for granted that a pitcher will always toss four balls to his catcher. Austin Anderson can attest to that.