By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
Sometimes, summer changes people.
For Aaron Barrett, it wasn’t about finding love or embarking on some new path to discover life’s meaning.
It was about getting away, throwing against wood bats in his summer baseball league and returning to Ole Miss equipped and intent on becoming the important part of the team that he was not as a first-year junior college transfer.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t needed. As soon as he arrived from Wabash Valley College, the expectation was for Barrett to be part of the weekend rotation.
It was an experiment that lasted the first four Friday nights of the season before mediocre results pushed him further and further from the game plan. Soon, Barrett was so far down the list that he couldn’t get in games to try and recapture the potential his coaches believed he had.
“Once Aaron lost that role it was tough to get him in games, because we had so many other guys pitching well,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.
Barrett is back in that role now. He’s held it with ferocity through his first four starts, becoming the dependable No. 2 starter the Rebels must have behind All-American Drew Pomeranz.
It’s important that Barrett show the consistency this weekend that he has all season as No. 21 Ole Miss – with much less pitching depth than a year ago – opens SEC play at No. 22 Kentucky.
Pomeranz, the SEC strikeout leader with 40, will pitch in Game 1 today at 5:30.
Barrett, third in the league with 30 strikeouts, will pitch Saturday. “I’m definitely looking to make a statement,” he said.
So far that statement has been that last year was a fluke, that he has more talent than his 8.01 earned run average and 44 hits in 30 innings led people to believe.
The after-summer Aaron Barrett is sixth in the SEC with a 1.80 ERA. He’s given up just five earned runs in 25 innings, three of those against a talented offensive club, No. 10 Louisville. Last Saturday, Barrett went 6 2/3 innings and struck out nine as Ole Miss won 8-3 and handed Louisville its first defeat.
“Summer was super important for him to get back on the mound, regain command and confidence,” Bianco said. “You could tell when he came back that he was a different guy. His stuff had always been there, but the confidence, the belief in his stuff has really shown the first four weekends.”
Barrett’s teammates saw the change as well. It was clearly evident in fall practice when they stood in the batter’s box, many leaving after wild swings at a slider that had them confused.
“Dude, it’s sick. It starts in the zone, finishes outside the zone. I swung at it every time,” outfielder Tim Ferguson said.
With low-90s velocity, Barrett has success with his fastball and change-up, but the slider is what he calls his out pitch. “I can throw it any time for a strike, and if I throw it down and away I can strike the guy out.”
For all the early success, the transformation is incomplete. As the SEC schedule arrives, Barrett hopes to improve his fastball location.
The discipline of hitters, combined with his own unwillingness to give in, has resulted in 11 walks, highest among SEC pitchers who rank in the league’s top 10 in ERA. Barrett has walked four batters in each of his last two starts.
Improving that control may help him get past the seventh inning, a level of status he’s yet to accomplish.
“Getting ahead of hitters and throwing the fastball where I want early in the count would be my biggest area for improvement,” he said.
It’s an important step, but in the big picture, Aaron Barrett is far ahead of last season.
A player used to producing, a pitcher twice drafted, the last time in the 20th round coming out of Wabash, Barrett had to swallow his competitive nature and try to stay positive in the dugout.
“I tried to share in the successes of all the guys on our team and be as much of a team player as I could,” he said.
“And that’s not easy to do,” Bianco said. “When you’re an athlete, and you’ve always had success, and it gets taken away from you it’s tough. I know it hurt him.”
The summer, though, was the beginning of recovery, a time when Barrett committed himself to working on his location, developing his change-up but most importantly, to moving forward. He put behind him the pressure to produce that choked him out of the lineup this time a year ago and focused instead on a “next pitch” mentality.
It didn’t take long for Bianco to see the difference. Now Barrett wants to keep the momentum going.
“From the beginning of the fall we all felt he would be a weekend starter,” Bianco said. “We knew if we were going to have success that he was going to have to be an integral part of it.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.