Photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics
OXFORD — When Hayden Leatherwood is not penciled into the starting lineup, he has a dugout routine.
When the opponent sends a right-handed pitcher to the bullpen, Leatherwood and sophomore Kevin Graham put their batting gloves on and grip a bat. The role of a pinch-hitter is not an easy one. It’s often difficult to stay engaged mentally, not knowing when an opportunity will beckon.
But Leatherwood was ready when called upon Wednesday. His pinch-hit, two-run blast in the seventh inning was the difference in a 4-3 Ole Miss victory over the Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
“We saw a right-hander go down in the second inning,” Leatherwood said. “We put our gloves on and had a bat in our hands from then on.”
Leatherwood caught a lukewarm fastball over the heart of the plate on the first pitch he saw and deposited it over the right-field fence.
“It was right down the middle,” Leatherwood said. “Off the bat, I was like, ‘maybe this will get into the gap or off the wall.’ But it traveled and got out.”
Leatherwood has six hits in 11 at-bats this season and four starts. He has homered in consecutive at-bats after a Sunday home run in the win over Xavier.
The blast made amends for a seventh-inning stumble that saw the Rebels give the Golden Eagles their first lead of the contest when Will McGillis took Austin Miller deep to left field. The solo shot put Southern Miss in front, 3-2.
The bullpen was taxed, though economically. Ole Miss used five pitchers to collect the final 22 outs after Mike Bianco quick-hooked freshman left-hander Wes Burton with the bases loaded and two outs in the second inning. Burton notched a scoreless first inning and recorded the first two outs with relative ease, then labored to the tune of a double, walk and a hit-by-pitch to load the bases.
“I just thought it wasn’t his best stuff today,” Bianco said. “His velocity was down. He’s been dealing with some cold-like stuff that other guys have too. He just didn’t look sharp tonight from the get-go. I just felt with so many rested guys in the bullpen, we were ready to go.”
The six-man effort on the hill was spotted a 2-0 lead in the third. Cade Sammons swiped second base after being hit by a Drew Boyd offering. Sammons scored on a ball Peyton Chatagnier struck into the left-center field gap. Tyler Keenan plated Chatagnier with a base hit. Keenan was 2-4 with an RBI and was the only Rebel with multiple hits.
Taylor Broadway turned in 2 1/3 innings of scoreless, one-hit relief. Broadway bridged the game to Jackson Kimbrell, who gave up an unearned run in the fifth and another in the sixth after three walks tied the game.
Max Cioffi made good on Leatherwood’s home run with a scoreless eighth, and Braden Forsyth stranded men at the corners in the ninth with a pair of strikeouts and earned the save. The bullpen day may not have necessarily been by design, but it wasn’t completely born out of necessity either. Bianco has used a lot of pitchers in brief stints and, as he tries to cement bullpen roles, wants to log as large of a sample size as reasonably possible with as many pitchers as possible.
“We wanted to make sure tonight we got a lot of guys in there,” Bianco said. “We needed guys to pitch. Forsythe had the ninth and I think the last time he pitched was last Saturday at Louisville. That seems like a month ago. That happens when you are scoring runs and you are using a lot of pitchers. It has been fun and it is all good, but you look up sometimes and guys haven’t pitched a lot.”
With the way Bianco has used Forsyth, the junior right-hander appears to be the preferred candidate to be the closer long term. His stuff translates well to high-leverage situations, despite his lack of command at times. Tuesday was a decent enough example. He struck out back-to-back hitters to end the game after allowing a walk and a single.
Ole Miss hits the road for the first time this season this weekend as it heads to Greenville, North Carolina to play in the Keith LeClair Classic hosted by East Carolina. The Rebels play High Point on Friday, Cliff Godwin’s Pirates on Saturday and Indiana on Sunday.
First pitch on Friday is slated for 10 A.M. CT.