HOOVER, Ala. – Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco has had Drew Pomeranz’s back of late, and why not, since Pomeranz has been the Rebels’ backbone most of the season.
The junior left-hander has been projected as the No. 2 pick in June’s Major League Baseball draft, and in the opening round of the SEC tournament on Wednesday he did nothing to endanger that possibility.
He was rarely threatened by South Carolina, a 43-game-winner, scattering six singles, walking just one and striking out seven in the Rebels’ 3-0 win.
It was the performance Bianco needed from his ace. Ole Miss has struggled mightily down the stretch and needed something to help reverse that trend, something that might spark a run or rebuild confidence as the NCAA tournament looms.
Bianco has been protective of Pomeranz, as some have questioned his control or velocity in recent weeks.
It’s easier to see flaws in Pomeranz, because their infrequency causes them to stand out with great clarity.
There have been some mild health issues that could have been factors in some games, outings that were strong in many ways but less than the grade of quality Ole Miss fans have come to expect from their big southpaw.
The fact is, Pomeranz pitched through those games, compensating when necessary by throwing a different pitch or changing his arm motion.
Those are subtle changes, impressive in a different sort of way. They allow Pomeranz to stay in games and compete, and ultimately Pomeranz on the mound is the best chance for Ole Miss to win.
Even when he walked seven at Alabama, the Crimson Tide couldn’t hit him, and he left after five innings with a 5-1 lead.
There were no such struggles against South Carolina.
“I had been struggling to feel good, in rhythm, and I felt like I was a tick off in my last few starts,” he said. “I just had the one walk, and I was around the plate more than I’ve been lately.”
Part of the growth of Pomeranz as a pitcher has been his success in getting his breaking balls over.
Wednesday he seemed to rely on his fastball more, locating it and moving it around the zone.
The velocity was back, some of his pitches reaching the mid-90s.
“He was as sharp as he’s been in the last month,” Bianco said. “His location was as good as it’s been, and he was around 94 the whole game.”
The location helped Pomeranz work out of a jam in the third when he gave up a walk and a basehit with one out. He rallied for a called strikeout of three-hole hitter Adam Matthews and a swinging strikeout of clean-up hitter Christian Walker.
Matthews, a .329 hitter, struck out in each of three at-bats against Pomeranz, whose stubbornness paid off in the third. He refused to give up the edges and give in to hitters.
“I told myself to keep making good pitches, not to ease up, to pump my best pitches into the strike zone. It worked out for me,” he said.
The presence of Pomeranz is why postseason could work out for the offensively challenged Rebels.
He gives Ole Miss a chance every time he takes the mound, and Bianco can send right-hander Aaron Barrett – less dominant but very effective in his own right – to the mound for a second game.
Barrett carried a no-hitter into the seventh against Alabama in Tuscaloosa and will face the Tide today.
Win the first two games in a regional – and starting pitching is the key – and you’ve set yourself up nicely for the weekend.
Pomeranz has been the picture of consistency, even when a tick off. He gives the Rebels a chance.
But he needs Barrett to get his back as much as Bianco. It takes two to tango in the Big Dance.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal