By Parrish Alford and Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Matt Smith feels like he’s in the zone, and his Ole Miss teammates need him to take that zone with him on the road.
Smith is the leading hitter for the 14th-ranked Rebels, at .378, but that average dips to .286 in SEC play.
Ole Miss, tied for second in the SEC’s Western Division after a home sweep of LSU last week, plays at rival Mississippi State this weekend.
In non-conference wins over Murray State and Tennessee-Martin this week, Smith went 8 for 10 with two home runs and six RBIs.
He was 1 for 10 in three games against LSU, but his one hit was timely. His 11th-inning double against LSU closer Matty Ott allowed him to score the game-winning run on a two-out single by freshman Alex Yarbrough.
“I just feel real focused and don’t feel like I can get out. As a hitter you just get in a zone, and I feel like I can hit anything right now,” Smith said.
Smith was 1 for 3 with a run scored an an RBI when Ole Miss defeated MSU 5-3 in the Governor’s Cup game in late March.
“We talked about him and (Matt) Snyder in the middle (of the order). They don’t both have to be hot to really change a game,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “If you can get one of them to swing like they’re really capable of swinging, it makes for a really good day offensively.”
Smith led the SEC in strikeouts as a redshirt freshman two years ago. Last year he focused on cutting down strikeouts. His average increased, but his home run numbers dropped from 14 to 8. This season he leads the team with 10 home runs.
“He’s become such a complete hitter. He can hit the fastball, the breaking ball. He can hit it the other way, can hit it out of the park,” Bianco said.
The Rebels’ top hitters in SEC play have been Tim Ferguson (.346), Kevin Mort (.324) and Matt Snyder (.319).
Stratton always a Bulldog
- Freshman pitcher Chris Stratton grew up an MSU fan, so it was an easy decision when both State and Ole Miss were recruiting him.
Now, with a bunch of Alabamans on the roster, Stratton can educate them in the MSU-Ole Miss rivalry, which dates back to 1893.
“Hopefully I can tell them what the rivalry’s like, so they can know what to expect,” Stratton said. “It’s something that can make your season if you beat the other rivalry team.”
The Bulldogs lead the overall series, 235-191-5, but they haven’t taken a series from Ole Miss in Starkville since 2002.
Unexpected pitching help
- With an eye on bullpen depth, Ole Miss position players Tanner Mathis and David Phillips, both left-handers, spent time on the mound Wednesday night against UT-Martin.
Mathis, a freshman outfielder from Lake Charles, La., went three innings with three hits and one run allowed. He walked none and struck out three.
Phillips, a senior outfielder from Nacogdoches, Texas, pitched the ninth, facing five batters. He gave up a walk, a hit and a run.
“That’s what we were hoping for,” Bianco said. “Tanner did what he did to our team the whole fall. He was able to use that left-handed magic and thumb it in there. Phillips said he was pitching on adrenaline. There was a little more velocity than we’ve seen, a little sharper breaking ball. We don’t have a lot of pitchers, and if they can do that, that helps a lot.”
Offensively, Mathis is hitting .316 with 79 at-bats in 30 games.
Phillips is hitting .261 with seven home runs and 26 RBIs in 38 games, 36 starts.
Routt out for year?
- MSU’s weekend rotation has been an unsettled one, largely due to the fact that sophomore left-hander Nick Routt has been out for six weeks with an injury in his throwing arm.
He won’t be available this weekend, and coach John Cohen sad, “The issue is going to be whether he’ll pitch again this year.”
Routt has a strained forearm muscle and nerve inflammation, and he only started throwing off a mound on Monday. He threw again Wednesday and was scheduled to do so today.
Cohen has said many times that only Routt can say when he’ll be ready to return. Harder than the recovery itself has been watching MSU’s struggles on the mound.
“It’s always frustrating to be sitting on the bench watching the team play when you know you could help them,” Routt said, “but you just can’t.”