Drenched in perspiration standing in shallow right field, Thomas Dillard let out an exhale as he tried to reclaim his breath.
“I’m tired,” Dillard proclaimed.
It’s been a trying couple of weeks for the junior left fielder, who stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out the bottom of the 11th inning in a game Texas A&M led 4-3. Dillard was 3 for his last 23, but shot a 3-2 fastball off the left side of the mound and into centerfield to deliver a 5-4 walk-off win.
Losers of five of its last six, this win tested Ole Miss’ resolve both individually and collectively.
Digging from the right side in against left hander Joseph Menefee, Dillard was hitting just .208 against left-handed pitching entering the night. He’d faced Menefee in his last at bat, grounding out to the shortstop in the ninth to strand Grae Kessinger, the game’s winning run, at second base. He just missed a 1-0 fastball Menefee offered a few pithes earlier, violently recoiling in frustration knowing a barrel to the ball would’ve sent it over the left field wall and ended the game.
“I got to see him pretty well,” Dillard said. “He has a lot of ride on his fastball. He is similar to (Arkansas closer) Matt Cronin. It was really impressive. It was tough to get on top of the ball. I have had some struggles right-handed this year. I have been getting under it too much and missing a lot of fastballs.”
Menefee offered a fastball on the outer half. Dillard stayed on top of it and ended the game, steering the Rebels away from what would’ve been a demoralizing defeat. Ole Miss was 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position going into the at bat.
“Fighting back when things don’t go our way,”Dillard said. “Even when we were down 3-0, we felt like we were going to win the game.”
Ole Miss fell behind 3-0 after five innings. The Rebels gifted the Aggies a run in the fourth with a pair of errors and A&M tagged Will Ethridge for two more with a pair of singles in the fifth from Cam Blake and Mikey Hoehner. Ethridge threw a career-high eight innings, scattering six hits and surrendering three runs that were earned, but perhaps not deserved with the defensive blunders behind him. Ethridge did hit three batters, however.
“I let some balls get away from me, hit some guys and allowed them to score,” Ethridge said. “But I battled. That is what you have to do when you pitch on Thursday night.”
Ole Miss appeared to be hurtling towards its sixth loss in seven games.
It chipped away, parlaying a Michael Fitzsimmons pinch-hit single into a run in the seventh with the help of a wild pitch and an error. The Rebels put the first two aboard in the eighth with a Keenan walk and a Dillard base hit. Keenan scored on a Cooper Johnson bunt that was botched by Aggie pitcher Kasey Kelich, who hurled the baseball wide right of the third baseman and into the tarp in foul ground. Dillard advanced to third and scored to tie the game on a Kevin Graham sacrifice fly.
“I like the energy we had in the dugout, even down 3-0,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “We had a different vibe in the dugout. It felt like ‘Hey, if we can scratch a run across we will be okay.’ That was huge getting it to 3-2.”
This game neared defeat for the Rebels more than once. Parker Caracci threw 52 pitches in three innings of relief as the game entered the 11th inning. The one base runner Caracci allowed scored on a Hoehner leadoff walk to begin the 11th. Hoehner got to second in part thanks to Cole Zabowski bobbling a hard-hit ball that bounced to Jacob Adams at second base, who made the best of it and got the Will Frizzell at first base. Hoehner moved up 90 feet to third on a productive ground ball and scored on a wild pitch. Cooper Johnson nearly extinguished Hoehner at the plate after a fortuitous bounce off the backstop, but a shrewd slide from Hoehner helped him evade the tag.
“We worked on body language this week,” Dillard said. “Fighting back when things don’t go our way.”
Ole Miss loaded the bases in the ninth, Dillard overcame his struggles at the plate from the right side and the Rebels moved to 11-8 in the SEC. For all of the flaws and moving part on this team, it has beaten two of the SEC’s best pitchers in Auburn’s Tanner Burns and John Doxakis in back-to-back weeks. Ole Miss is a 1.5 games out of first place in the SEC West after a win that pushed its fortitude to the limit.
“We know we are really talented,” Dillard said. “We just kept fighting, good body language and ended up scratching one out.”
PHOTO CREDIT: PETRE THOMAS – Ole Miss Athletics