OXFORD – A team that doesn’t get long balls often got one when it needed it most thanks to its first baseman.
Matt Smith was billed as a power hitter coming up through the program but was more of a contact guy, hitting .342 when super regional play began.
His walk-off home run on the first pitch of the bottom of the 12th gave Ole Miss a 4-3 win and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three super regional.
Smith had struck out on four pitches against Virginia closer Kevin Arico when he could have won the game in the ninth. He got his second chance and a key adjustment in the batter’s box paid off.
“In the last at-bat, he struck me out on three straight cutters. I wanted to move to the front of the plate and see if he would challenge me inside,” Smith said. “I didn’t try to do too much with it. I just wanted to barrel it up. The place went nuts, and I don’t really remember anything else.”
Arico did challenge Smith, not only throwing a fastball hitter a fastball but leaving it up in the zone. The right-handed hitter turned on it.
“He did what any good hitter would do. He crushed it,” Arico said.
The Cavaliers’ closer entered the game with one out in the ninth and runners on first and second. The first batter he faced, Logan Power, singled sharply to left to drive in the tying run.
Arico gave up no hits or runs in two appearances in the Irvine Regional and carried a worksheet of 11 saves and a 2.01 ERA through 311⁄3 innings into Friday’s play. He had allowed three home runs.
He followed the swinging strikeout of Smith with a swinging strikeout of Kyle Henson to escape further damage in the ninth.
But Arico could get no run support from his mates against Ole Miss closer Jake Morgan – even when the Rebels committed two throwing errors in the 12th.
The scene was ripe for a walk-off job, a tall order for an Ole Miss team that ranks last in the SEC with 54 home runs. The home was run the eighth of the year for Smith, tying for the team lead with two other players and only half of the 16 put up by Virginia leader Jarrett Parker.
Morgan got out of the jam but did so with a warning track fly ball that drew gasps from the home fans for out No. 3. The emotions were different seconds later when Smith’s adjustment paid off with the pitch he hoped to see.
“Their ball was hit well, no doubt,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “But so was Matt’s.”
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal