By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – It wasn’t fun while it was happening, but upon further review, Phillip Irwin can see the value of getting shelled.
Irwin frequently left non-conference games early at Ole Miss last season, and while that might be acceptable from the fan base, it isn’t from the starting pitcher.
Fast forward now to the silver lining.
“I was throwing mid-week games and not making it out of the first or second inning,” recalled Irwin, a fourth-year junior from Collierville, Tenn. “I think it was good for me to get hit around, because I had to figure things out and really work on my craft.”
That self-evaluation has helped Irwin take his “craft” to heights not yet seen at this level. Irwin has been one of the pitching staff’s early success stories, ranking in the SEC’s top 10 in earned run average, walks allowed and runs allowed. He’s one of only two SEC pitchers to throw meaningful innings without giving up a home run.
Irwin (4-1, 2.83, 35 IP) will start Game 2 of this weekend’s SEC series when the Rebels (19-9, 5-4 SEC) host Kentucky (16-9, 4-5) at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The three-game series begins tonight.
The 6-foot-3 right-hander commands a fastball, curve and change-up and usually throws in the upper 80s to low 90s. He had a successful high school career, a two-time all-state selection who helped Memphis Christian Brothers to a state championship in 2005, his senior season.
Irwin blossomed as a senior and had a perfect game going deep into one high school outing, after which former Ole Miss assistant Dan McDonnell pulled him aside and made a scholarship offer.
The transition wasn’t easy, especially after an arm injury roughly two weeks after he signed with Ole Miss in the late summer of 2005 required Tommy John surgery.
“I don’t know that any of us as coaches can recognize who’s going to do it immediately and who’s going to need time to mature,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “There are guys that do it early, and for some guys it takes a few years.”
Bianco compared Irwin with former Ole Miss pitchers Will Kline and Eric Fowler, who were at the top of their games late in their careers.
While his coaches hadn’t given up on him, older guys in the program can occasionally feel the screws tighten as younger talent arrives.
“Last year was really disappointing,” said Irwin.
Well, not all of last year. It was, in fact, a relief appearance against Bethune-Cookman in an elimination game in the NCAA tournament in Miami that seemed to be Irwin’s turning point. He struck out nine and walked only one batter in a four-inning outing.
Pitching has been easier since that day, as Irwin followed through with strong summer work and was one of the Rebels’ top performers in fall practice.
“He was always throwing strikes, but now he’s making better pitches. Instead of the 0-2 curveball being left up, he’s burying it now for guys to swing at,” Ole Miss catcher Brett Basham said. “Now he’s elevating the fastball with two strikes and not throwing too good of a pitch.”
Irwin really sensed improvement in his game and rising confidence in the fall.
“I felt invincible out there. That might be bold, but that’s how I felt, and it’s how good pitchers should feel,” he said.
He has at times appeared near invincible in his first swing through the SEC. The Alabama game was a statement game for Irwin, who held the hot-hitting Crimson Tide to two runs on five hits in seven innings. He walked one and struck out six and was quite nervous the night before. It’s different getting ready to pitch against Alabama and getting ready to pitch against Northwestern State.
“I was probably as nervous as I’ve ever been, because I knew they were an offensive powerhouse,” he said.
This time Irwin had some power of his own to fall back on.
n Tonight: Ole Miss LHP Drew Pomeranz (2-0, 3.55) vs. Kentucky RHP Alex Meyer (1-1, 4.30)
n Saturday: Ole Miss RHP Phillip Irwin (4-1, 2.83) vs. Kentucky LHP Chris Rusin (4-1, 3.21)
n Sunday: Ole Miss RHP Scott Bittle (1-2, 3.06) vs. Kentucky LHP James Paxton (4-1, 5.62)