Reconstructing the hit that sent Ole Miss to Omaha

Left alone with his thoughts as he gripped a baseball bat, Holt Perdzock knew he had to be ready.

He sat in the first base dugout at Tigue Moore Field, watching Ole Miss nurse a 5-3 lead over Louisiana-Lafayette lead in the seventh inning of game three of a super regional in 2014. The Rebels were nine outs away from the program’s first trip to Omaha in 42 years. Nine outs away from ending a decade’s worth of June frustration and breaking the mold of a program —fairly or unfairly — shaped by postseason futility.

This is the life of a pinch hitter. In a game that could change direction on a single misplaced pitch or unfortunate bounce, you know your time is likely coming, but uncertainty looms as to when that time will actually come. Its arrival is often without much warning, leaving little time to get loose or review a scouting report.

Mike Bianco told Perdzock in the seventh inning to be ready at any moment, a task easier delegated than accomplished.

“It is definitely tough,” Perdzock said. “It is tough to stay focused for nine innings of a game. I would go in every half inning or so and take swings and try to stay loose. We could look down to the bullpen and see who might come in and what the situation is.”

Two innings later, Perdzock would deliver what could be dubbed as the most significant hit in Ole Miss postseason history. But for now, he was just trying to to stay loose, mentally and physcially.

“That is what makes it tough,” Bianco said. “You are not in the game. You sit for two hours. Besides physically not being warm, you aren’t mentally warm. It is so hard to raise that focus.”

Tigue Moore Field wasn’t as accommodating as most SEC stadiums. There was no batting cage to hit balls and no an area behind the dugout to take cuts. Perdzock gripped a bat, tightened his gloves and stood idle, occasionally popping out of the dugout between innings to take a swing or two.

“I could not stand pinch hitting,” former Ole Miss third baseman Austin Anderson said. “You’re tight. Your muscles and reaction time are slower. The ball looks quicker. The sliders look sharper. The changeups are harder to pick up. I don’t know how people are good pinch hitters. I hated it.”

Lafayette plated a run in the bottom of the seventh on an RBI double from Seth Harrison. The lead was trimmed to 5-4. Ole Miss maintained its lead thanks to Braxton Lee tracking the Harrison double down the third base line, firing it to cutoff man Errol Robinson, who gunned down the second runner and would-be tying run at the plate to get out of the inning.

Ole Miss added a run in the eighth and took a 6-4 lead into the ninth, a slim margin considering it was facing a Ragin’ Cajun offense that clubbed 68 home runs on the season as a team, averaged 7.8 runs per game and compiled a .317 team batting average. The Rebels were three outs from history, a situation that nearly ceased to exist if not for a win the day before.

Ole Miss lost game one of the super regional, on a night ace Chris Ellis struggled and little went right. Facing elimination and another somber postseason exit, the Rebels didn’t flinch.

“I was a senior captain,” Anderson said. “I didn’t want to go out like that.”

The 2014 team was unfairly burdened with carrying pressure created by past postseason failures. It had a different mental makeup. It didn’t phase them. Christian Trent and his unblemished 9-0 record took the ball in game two.

“You kind of got to know Trent, he is a goober,” former first baseman Sikes Orvis said. “After we lost game one, he walks up to (assistant coach Carl) Laff(erty) and he’s patting his own shoulder. Laff goes ‘What are you doing?’ Trent says ’The season is sitting right here. I got this. Don’t worry.’ And then he walks off.”

Ole Miss won an emotionally taxing game two, thanks in part to Trent’s seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball.

“He was a confident dude,” former Ole Miss assistant Cliff Godwin said. “I wasn’t at Ole Miss that long, but in my opinion, there wasn’t ever a game better pitched in that situation than what he did that night.”

Ole Miss rode the twist and turns of game three to get to this moment, too. The Rebels fell behind 1-0 early before Anderson deposited a misplaced fastball over the fence to give Ole Miss a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Orvis clubbed a solo shot a couple pitches later to make it 3-1. It was a seesaw affair, and now, here the Rebels sat, leading 6-4 in the ninth with a chance to issue the knockout blow and punch its ticket to Omaha.

Perdzock was told to be ready and the moment beckoned. In more ways than one, he fit the mold for this task. He wasn’t paralyzed by the stage.

“His pulse was the same whether he was hitting in front of 15,000 or walking to class,” Godwin said.

Perdzock was no stranger to these situations. He was the first left-handed bat off the bench all year. He was 10-of-32 on the season and started only one game. Most of his hits came in pinch-hit situations. The bases were loaded with no outs in the ninth. Seth Harrison hit Anderson to lead off the inning and gave up a single to Will Allen. Harrison was pulled in favor of righty Ben Carter, who was unable to find a grip on his command and walked Orvis on five pitches.

“We always lit up when Holt came in because something good usually happened,” Orvis said. “We knew what kind of hitter he was. He did it on a routine basis.”

The bases were loaded with no outs and Perdzock pinch-hit for Colby Bortles, a move solidified by a conversation between Bianco and Godwin. Perdzock was a good match up as a lefty and was quick enough down the line that a ground ball likely didn’t mean two outs. The goal was to get something in play. He felt he could beat out a double play turn. Virtually anything but a strikeout or popup would suffice.

Carter dumped a breaking ball in the dirt to fall behind 1-0. A fastball sailed high and away next. Perdzock was in command at 2-0. Carter then spiked a fastball in the dirt as the count moved to 3-0. Ball four whizzed by off the plate on the outside corner, but was inexplicably called a strike. Keith Kessinger dubbed it as “A gift. Just terrible,’” on the radio call.

“I got screwed over because that pitch was not even close to a strike and he called it,” Perdzock said.

Perzock’s demeanor wasn’t altered by the poor fortune. Showing up the umpire or uttering a swear wouldn’t have accomplished much in that moment, other than appease his own frustration. He took a cut and dug back in.

“He is such a low-key guy,” Orvis said. “He doesn’t let much bother him. I guess if you are going to get hosed on a call in that moment, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy. He let it roll off and got right back into it the next pitch.”

Perdzock swung through a fastball on the next pitch and the dynamic of the at bat began to change as Carter had come back to run it full.

“I really didn’t want to walk,” Perdzock said. “I wanted to put something in play, so anything close I was hacking.”

Full count, bases load in the ninth is often the stuff of childhood fantasies in the backyard, dreaming of the day it becomes a reality. Second chances in postseason baseball are seldom. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. For a pinch hitter, this is true to some degree with each opportunity provided. It is likely the only one. Perdzock had one chance to seize the moment and alter the outcome of the game, just as he’d done so many times all season.

Carter grooved a fastball on the inner half and Perdzock dropped his barrel on it, lighting the fuse to what his teammates call a ‘Holt Rocket’ into the right field corner. The ball nearly hit Orvis leaning from first base towards second. Anderson scored easily from third. Allen coasted home from second. Lafayette right fielder Dylan Butler elected to slide to try to prevent the baseball from caroming off the wall. He fumbled it twice, seemingly unable to find the grip.

“Me and Laff, who was in the right field bullpen watching it closely, we said it was like trying to grab a greased pig,” Godwin said. “The kid could not get ahold of it.”

Orvis raced from first to third where he was greeted with a green light to head home, a signal that drew a bewildered look of surprise.

“Going first to third is leaps and bounds for your boy here,” Orvis quipped. ”I had to crank it up and then put on the parachute at third to slow down, then I see Godwin waving me home and I am thinking ‘oh God.’”

The noted speedster raced all the way around from first base, slid home as he and Anderson looked at one another and let out a simultaneous roar. Perdzock slid into third base, his demeanor still relatively calm and stoic given the scene unfolding around him. He was credited with a two-RBI double and an error, a hit that punched a ticket to Omaha that was 42 years in the making and forever changed a program.

Perdzock turned to the dugout to a scene of elation. Directly above the first base dugout where his teammates were coming to terms with what they were about accomplish, a beverage showered spewed into the air 394 miles southwest of Swayze Field.

A sacrifice fly plated Perdzock and capped the damage at 10-4. Josh Laxer sealed it with three outs in the ninth, culminating in a ground ball to Errol Robinson, a throw to Sikes Orvis and a dog pile on the mound. Perdzock had gone to the bullpen to potentially catch a warming Ellis if things went awry. He sprinted towards his teammates gathered near the mound, not yet grasping the full gravity of the moment and what he’d just done.

Ole Miss broke a mold hardened by a decade of postseason frustration. A collective burden had been lifted, though no individual one felt its alleviation more than Mike Bianco, a man who built a program into a contender from the ground up and the only one to endure all four previous super regional disappointments.

“The road to the College World Series is one that’s bumpy and winding,” Bianco said after the game. “I didn’t expect it to take this long to get there, but you have to have a special group to do that and this is certainly a special group. We talked about it in the fall and then in the preseason. I’m really proud of this team.

“I hope we get to do this again soon at home on our own field, but this team could have won anywhere tonight.”

Bianco hugged assistant coach Stephen Head — who endured the heartache of the 2005 Texas super regional. Bianco then embraced his wife Camie and his kids when they joined him on the field shortly after.

“I just remember him hugging Camie,” Godwin said. “It was a huge moment for both of them. For a guy that could’ve left and coached elsewhere in the SEC, to stick there and play in the College World Series for the first time in 42 years, it is special.”

The sense of relief was detectable amid the sheer elation.

“There were a lot of tears, a lot of people saying thank you,” Orvis said. “It kind of changed the trajectory of the program.”

Perdzock’s pinch-hit heroics didn’t stop cease in Lafayette. A little more than a week later, he broke a scoreless tie in the seventh inning of an elimination game against Texas Tech with a two-out, RBI single in a game the Rebels eventually won on a John Gatlin walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth to keep Ole Miss’ season alive for another couple of days.

“Holt had one of the best years anyone has ever had here as a pinch hitter,” Bianco said. 
“He had so many big hits.”

The Rebels were eventually eliminated by Virginia, but authored a season that changed the perception of the program

“The worst part about the season being over is this team will never be a team again,” Orvis said. “We had a really good time together and enjoyed coming to the ballpark each day.”

The 2014 Ole Miss Rebels weren’t short on talent by any stretch and it was far from an underdog story. Yet, it wasn’t the most talented team Bianco has had in his now 19-year tenure. But that team had a toughness and resiliency about it that allowed it to shoulder the pressure created by postseasons of the past. It made plays when it mattered most and won games of all varieties. Perdzock’s run as a pinch hitter epitomized that toughness and was at a driving force behind the most successful Ole Miss team in a generation.

“It was all confidence for me,” Perdzock said. “I had gotten a few hits and you kind of feel untouchable. You at least know you are going to go up there and put up a good at bat. Sometimes things just kind of go your way and nothing can shake your confidence.”