Depth on a pitching staff can dwindle in a lot of ways, but when you’re 20 minutes from the first pitch in an NCAA Super Regional you’d think a coach could relax with the idea that at least the arms on his 25-man roster were in fact available.
The Ole Miss staff was missing its best regular season pitcher, Scott Bittle, already when its closer, Jake Morgan, was spotted lying in his own blood in the outfield 20 minutes before Friday’s first pitch against Virginia.
“Somebody came in yelling, ‘We need a towel.’ I couldn’t tell who it was, and then someone got to a knee, and I could see it was 44,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.
So the availability of another pitcher was very much in question after Morgan, who entered the game with a 3.41 ERA and nine saves in 37 innings, sustained a broken nose in routine pre-game warm-ups when he was hit in the face with a ball from teammate Nathan Baker.
With gauze stuffed in both nostrils and a nose that never stopped bleeding, Morgan rebounded from his worst outing of the season to close the door against Virginia and give the Rebels a 4-3 12-inning win and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.
As it was in 2005 and 2006, Ole Miss is one win away from its first College World Series berth since 1972.
Morgan was pushed around like never before last Sunday in the championship round of the Oxford Regional. He faced six batters, gave up five hits, a walk and six runs as Western Kentucky rallied from a 9-3 deficit in the eighth to win 10-9 and force Monday’s winner-take-all regional match.
It was a very un-Morgan-like outing. He had much more success against the SEC, second in games against league schools with seven saves.
Five days after the low point of his season, Morgan – as he licked the blood that dripped down his face – gave up one hit, one walk and no runs in a three-inning performance.
“He looked like Rocky out there, but he pitched like Rocky too,” Bianco said.
After he was pumped with the proper meds Morgan pumped fastballs in the zone, mixed in his breaking pitches and had more velocity than the Cavaliers had seen from starter Phillip Irwin.
“He mixed and matched a lot better than the guy before. He had good velocity, and we couldn’t put hits together,” Virginia catcher Franco Valdes said.
Irwin went seven innings and David Goforth two before Morgan answered questions about his availability by taking the mound.
“They gave me some pain medicine, and I figured a broken nose would hurt more,” Morgan said. “It really just went numb. I felt better than I usually do. I was breathing fine, and everything felt great.”
Both closers were in the game longer than they’re accustomed to pitching, which could put a different twist on the rest of the weekend.
Twelve-inning games are another way to tax that pitching depth. Both coaches were non-committal on what roles two very important players might play in the rest of the super regional.
Today Bianco will give the ball to Drew Pomeranz, Monday’s super hero who won the Oxford Regional with a two-hit, 16-strikeout, complete game on two-day’s rest. It will be four days rest for Pomeranz this time.
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor will counter with right-hander Robert Morey (3-0, 2.91), who has pitched as a starter and from the pen. O’Connor calls him the Cavs’ most consistent pitcher down the stretch.
The quality pitching both teams built their seasons on was clearly displayed here Friday, but the extra innings played will further challenge both staffs.
The starter who can stay in the game longer might help his team nose into Omaha.
Parrish Alford (email@example.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs about Ole Miss athletics at www.nems360.com.
NEMS Daily Journal