As Thomas Dillard flipped his bat down the baseline and raised an open hand toward the sky, he seemed to be celebrating more than a walk-off win against a division rival. Dillard’s 11th-inning single up the middle iced a 5-4 Ole Miss comeback win in the opening round of a three-game tilt against Texas A&M but, more importantly, it gave the Rebels reason to hope during a brutal slump.
Two weeks ago, Ole Miss was tied for first in the SEC West and riding high on series wins over ranked Arkansas and Florida teams. Then, after crushing Kentucky on a Friday night opener, the Rebs dropped a double-header to the Cats to lose the series. They lost a series-deciding Sunday heartbreaker against Auburn a week later and, for good measure, got drubbed by Mississippi State in a non-con midweek game on Tuesday. Just like that, the Rebels had lost five of seven and sat in fifth place in a highly-competitive West.
The culprit for the slide was obvious: the Ole Miss’ uber-talented lineup wasn’t producing. In the 36 games before the first loss to Kentucky, the Rebels hit .302 as a team and averaged 8.2 runs per game. In the eight games since (Thursday’s tilt vs. A&M included), they’ve hit .232 and averaged 3.5 runs per game. It’s no coincidence that six of the eight starting pitchers they’ve faced in that stretch have been lefties.
Ole Miss’ young pitching rotation (which lost three weekend starters from a season ago) has made strides, but this team is built to win with offense. Loaded with top draft prospects from a 2016 recruiting class that ranked tops in the country, this lineup has shown it can be one of the most dangerous in the country—just look at the 40 runs and .415 batting average piled up during a weekend sweep of then-ranked Florida. But the recent drought at the plate has strained the pitching corps. Friday night ace Will Etheridge (who bounced back from some tough middle innings against A&M and allowed just one baserunner in the sixth, seventh and eighth) has proven more than capable of winning games on his own, but freshmen starters Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund aren’t ready to carry that kind of load yet. The bats have to step up.
Dillard’s heroics aside, Thursday’s win was no breakout offensive performance. On a night when A&M handed out a season-high nine walks, the Rebels could muster just three runs through 10 innings.
Before Ryan Olenek blooped a one-out single over the shortstop’s head in bottom of the 11th inning, Ole Miss had just five hits on the night. A&M had scraped a run across in the top of the frame to take a 4-3 lead, putting the Rebs on the brink of another L. Following Olenek, Grae Kessinger sent a chopper up middle that, had it been a foot closer to the second baseman, would have probably ended the game on a double play. But the A&M infielder’s valiant attempt at a SportsCenter top play wasn’t handled.
Olenek, who took a knee to the dome on that play, stayed in the game and moved to third on a bases-loaded walk, bringing Dillard to the plate.
If there’s one man who can bring the Hulk out of this team’s Bruce Banner, it’s the 230-pound, built-like-a-fullback, baseball-destroying Dillard. His tear to start the season made him arguably the most dangerous hitter in college baseball before he cooled down early in SEC play. He’s found a better rhythm at the plate recently, raising his conference average to a modest .284, but he’s still searching for the power numbers—after mashing eight homers in non-con play, he’s hit just one against an SEC arm.
His game-winner against A&M, a sharply-hit single that bounded off the mound and skipped into center field to bring home the tying and winning runs, was a far cry from the moonshot he used against Long Beach State to notch the Rebels’ only other walk-off win this season. But Dillard and the rest of this offense don’t need much to reignite. Maybe his game-winner against A&M can be the spark.