PARRISH ALFORD: Late heroics deliver payoff for tough year

PARRISH ALFORD

PARRISH ALFORD

OMAHA, Neb.

John Gatlin doesn’t have all of life’s answers – who does – but at least he has a little more clarity for his personal journey.

A former Tupelo player who blossomed late in high school and continued that trend at Itawamba Community College, Gatlin once put together some consistent at-bats at Ole Miss.

However, that seemed like ages ago as injuries and surgeries mounted and eventually forced him to miss all of the 2013 season.

While healthy for one last go-round, he had not been as productive as he was two years ago, and newcomers had long since passed him on the short list of pinch-hit options among the non-starters.

They had passed him again Tuesday afternoon, but the game was still in the balance, and life has a way of finding that most unlikely hero.

And now Gatlin, who poked a game-winning hit over Texas Tech’s five-man infield and into shallow right field, has an idea of why he hung around.

It just might have been to make Marion Tenkhoff proud. That’s his maternal grandmother who died over the weekend, a family situation that prevented Gatlin’s parents, Bob and Kathryn Gatlin, from being at TD Ameritrade Park for their son’s biggest baseball moment.

Gatlin hit .255 in 2012 before the injuries set in. This season he had an RBI hit at Stetson on the opening weekend and a game-winning hit against UCF in Oxford on Feb. 28.

Fleeting chances

But John Gatlin was only 3-for-29 on the season when he carried the hope of Ole Miss fans to the plate, weighty hopes for something more than just playing in the College World Series but bringing back a win. While Ole Miss had not played in the CWS since 1972, it had not won in Omaha since 1969.

“I’ve wondered what happened, why did I get hurt a lot, why am I back here? As the season has unfolded I’ve found out those reasons,” Gatlin said.

He embraced the moment without bitterness for opportunities lost but shifted attention to his teammates – even the training staff that helped him regain health – at every chance.

His grandmother’s death was not unexpected, and when its news reached the team, assistant coach Cliff Godwin consoled Gatlin and offered him the chance to leave and be with his family. He responded with confidence that Tenkhoff is still watching and would have had none of that “leave Omaha” stuff.

“Coach Godwin came up to me and said, ‘I’m so sorry, do you need to go home?’ I told him, ‘That’s ridiculous. She’d have killed me if I’d have gone home. Obviously I stayed, and she’s got to be very proud.’”

Gatlin had a 1-2 count when he set off the Ole Miss celebration.

Since the Rebels managed just one hit against Virginia – they added only five more in victory – they’ve spoken about remaining aggressive.

Gatlin swung and fouled off the first pitch but let slide what appeared to be a great opportunity on his second pitch, a breaking ball for a called strike.

“My personal experience is you don’t want to swing at off-speed until you get two strikes, but that one was left up, and I probably could have done something with it,” he said.

He did something with the last one, earning the praise of fans and teammates and the pride of Tenkhoff.

“I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends back home after this,” he said.

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at InsideOleMissSports.com.