By Tom Blodgett
Maybe Abbey Latham’s freshman year at Ole Miss did not go exactly as planned. The native of Livingston, Alabama (population 3,454), came to Oxford expecting to contribute with a prodigious bat.
Instead, she tore her labrum before the season, an injury that will require summer surgery, and has been limited to a pinch hitting and filling the designated player role on occasion.
When the team warms up throwing, Latham is relegated to the sideline. When she did get in, it didn’t go to plan, either. Entering the Tempe Regional, she was hitting .224 in 58 at-bats.
But Latham is starting the postseason by working on a fine finishing touch to freshman year.
Picked to be the DP in the regional opener against No. 21 Long Beach State, Latham smashed a pair of home runs and a double in four at-bats, leading Ole Miss to a 9-1 win against the 49ers.
The Rebels will play Arizona State, a 2-0 winner against New Mexico State in the late game, in the winner’s game 2 p.m. Saturday at ASU’s Farrington Stadium.
Even if the stats seem not to support coach Mike Smith’s decision to insert Latham into the postseason lineup – she also got the start in Ole Miss’ one SEC tournament game, a loss to LSU – what he had seen behind the scenes gave him confidence in her. He called her one of the hardest workers on offense.
“She went through a growing phase as a freshman, and I’m sure she would probably admit to it,” Smith said. “But I’m telling you, this kid works hard in the cage. She asks questions. She’s a student of the game. She’s a cage rat, and success paid off on a big stage, and we’re proud of what she was able to do for the program.”
For her part, Latham expressed no nerves going onto that big stage.
“I felt really prepared for this weekend because our coaches give us a great plan to go up to the plate,” Latham said. “And with pitch changes, we had a lot of communication between coach and player so … not really much jitters.”
It helped that Latham got a good early swing to hit a double to left field in the second inning. It really didn’t matter, either, that she later was thrown out at the plate when Smith sent her home on Kaylee Horton’s shallow single to left. That’s on Smith for sending her when she had no reasonable chance without defensive help. The hit itself, that was important to Ole Miss.
“That double by Abbey really kind of set the tone for us to continue to score, and then, you know, Kylan (Becker) got on and we got a couple of people here and there,” Coach Mike Smith said. “Of course, the big home run (from Latham, a solo shot in the sixth inning) kind of separated us a little bit, and then we just continued that hitting barrage late in the ballgame.”
The barrage included a two-run homer from Latham in the seventh to finish the scoring. But it was the double that was a confidence boost for Latham.
“In that initial hit, it’s always good to know from the hitter’s standpoint that you can do this and you’re in control when you come to bat,” she said. “Definitely, starting off with a hit was good.”
Latham is a good fit for the Rebels, too, and Smith was to give credit to his freshman for her role in beating Long Beach State.
“Abbey took over at the plate,” he said.
Next up is Arizona State, the host and No. 8 national seed, but a team that Ole Miss beat last year in regionals at Oxford.
The Sun Devils got a two-hit shutout from G Juarez, who had had a perfect game into the sixth inning and a no-hitter in the seventh before New Mexico State threatened. The Aggies ultimately lost on Taylor Becerra’s sensational unassisted double play. The big hit was Morgan Howe’s two-run first-inning double.