Last summer, Cooper Johnson read Pound the Stone, a book by Joshua Medcalf about how perseverance an toughness are needed on the path towards success, even if the results aren’t visible.
The book’s message is relatable to pieces of Johnson’s career at Ole Miss, where the production at the plate hasn’t always been at a level he’d like it to be. As a freshman, he was mired by a 7-for-51 slump to begin his career, but raised his average to .218 by season’s end, hitting at a .298 clip over the last two months.
This year, Johnson has seen the results from February on. He’s hitting .310 and went 2-for-4 with 5 RBI in a 12-4 win over Florida.
“It’s about every day going out, whether you are having success or not, and being the same guy even you aren’t seeing the same results,” Johnson said. “That has really stuck with me.”
In a season defined by inconsistency, Johnson has been a constant at the plate. In the past, that’s been the inconsistent segment of his resume as a player. He has a gifted arm. The pop time and defense has always been there. The offense has sometimes lagged behind.
“He’s worked really hard with Coach Clement and worked hard in general since he has been here,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “One thing that is hard to quantify is being able to play every day and be himself. Because we’ve had Nick Fortes, he hasn’t had the opportunity to do that. Now, I think it is showing in the offense and the defense as well.”
The Ole Miss lineup has been a bit of a mystery for the first two months of this season, appearing to be one of the fiercest in the country at times, like most thought it would be, but bogged down by incoherent streaks with parts functioning at different levels at different times. But over the last week, it is beginning to look like the group that returned seven of nine starters from a team that terrorized SEC pitching in 2018.
The Rebels pummeled the Gators for 17 hits. Each of the first six hitters, culminating with Johnson, had multiple hits. Anthony Servideo has two hits in the nine-hole, too. Since Ryan Olenek moved to the leadoff spot in the Sunday win at Arkansas, slots 1-6 in the Ole Miss order has totaled 25 hits and 18 RBIs in its last two SEC games.
“This is what we think of ourselves, even when the results are not there,” Johnson said. “Hitting is contagious. When guys are hitting balls hard out there, everyone seems to follow suit with good at bats.”
Florida starter Tommy Mace has been one of the more productive Friday night starters in the SEC this season, featuring a fastball, cutter and a slider that are hard to decipher. The Rebels tagged him for six runs on 12 hits. He exited with one out in the third.
“We are pretty good offensively,” Bianco said. “We had a good weekend at Arkansas and are starting to look more like ourselves offensively.”
If there is cause for alarm in a dominating win, it is undoubtedly the premature exit of Will Ethridge, who left the game in the fourth inning after a blister resurfaced on his pitching hand. Ethridge was met by Mike Bianco and athletic trainer Josh Porter on the mound, examined the blister, spiked one more pitch into the dirt and was pulled in favor of Tyler Myers. The predominant reason for concern for Ethridge is that this is now a reoccurring issue. He missed what would’ve been his second start of the year at Tulane after a blister surfaced on the same finger in his opening day outing at Wright State.
Bianco said after the game that the blister didn’t burst open and that Ethridge should be okay with some medicine applied to the afflicted area. Ethridge also rolled his ankle a couple of plays before covering first base, but that was not a factor in his exit.
Ethridge’s abrupt exit from the game wasn’t the easiest situation for Myers to be thrust into. He said he’d never warmed up that quickly before. It didn’t fluster him as he finished the game off with 5.1 innings of two-run ball. The pair of mistakes he made came in the fifth inning on solo home runs from Brady Smith and Brady McConnell.
“I have never warmed up that quick,” Myers said. “I think I threw like five pitches in the bullpen and then came in and they told me to take as long as I needed. I knew I had to throw strikes and locate pitches, locating low in the zone and trusting my team behind me.”
Myers entered the night with a 10-inning scoreless streak that spanned three outings. He has emerged as one of, if not the most reliable extended reliever in the bullpen, alongside Austin Miller. With Ole Miss not naming a Sunday starter, Myers was certainly a candidate for that task, but was called into action with Ethridge’s unforeseen exit.
“When your number one comes out of the game because of an injury, it is never a good feeling,” Bianco said. “With it being early in the weekend an a double header tomorrow, it was tough situation for Myers. We were looking for him to get some outs and get his feet back under him. I don’t know if we expected him to do what he did, but he was tremendous tonight.”
Florida took a brief 2-0 lead in the third when Ethridge surrendered a two-out base hit to McConnell, making Ethridge pay for slipping into a two-on, no-out pinch. Ole Miss responded with three in the bottom half of the inning via a two-run home run from Tyler Keenan and a solo shot from Cole Zabowski. The Rebels blew the game open with a four-run fourth inning, highlighted by a two-out, two-RBI single by Johnson.
The Ole Miss offense provided a relief in an unfortunate situation with its ace exiting the game. It is clicking as cohesively as it has all season.
“It was a great night for us,” Bianco said. “It started at Arkansas, but we look more like myself.”
photo credit: Petre Thomas — Ole Miss Athletics