By Tom Blodgett
Ole Miss, of course, plays in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference. But it’s no more competitive than what goes down in practices at Oxford.
“Between these two right here,” Ole Miss coach Mike Smith said Friday, gesturing to senior pitcher Kaitlin Lee and junior center fielder Kylan Becker, “it’s pretty intense around our place.”
Lee and Becker chuckled at the comment, but agreed that intrasquads become personal
“It’s just she, gawd, she adjusts to everything,” Lee said of Becker with the mock frustration
written over her face. “Screwball, backdoor, curveball. It’s aggravating.”
But there’s a payoff to the competitions. When Ole Miss gets into tight spots, the Rebels know
well how to compete.
That was true Saturday when Ole Miss faced elimination in a pitcher’s duel with No. 20 Long Beach State, a spot in the Tempe Regional final against Arizona State going to the winner.
Ole Miss never got a hit until two outs in the fifth against a team it had beaten 9-1 a night earlier. But Lee ended up scattering seven hits for a shutout, and Becker scored the only run of a 1-0 win.
The Rebels will get a rematch with Arizona State, which beat them 7-1 in Saturday’s first regional game. Ole Miss beat ASU in the Oxford Regional last season. The Tempe Region final is set for 6:30 p.m. (Arizona time) Sunday at Farrington Stadium.
Smith, for his part, loves the competition between the two and the other players on the team.
Lee “complained” about how Smith sets her up in practice.
“He always makes me pitch against the slappers, always” she said. “And it’s not just one slapper in our lineup in our intrasquads, it’s all of them back to back to back.”
Interjected Smith: “I put them all in a line.”
“And I haaate it,” Lee responded. “Literally every time. I’m like, ‘Of course, he did; of course, he did; of course, he did.’ It’s just maddening.”
But Smith does it for a reason, too.
“The method to my madness is, if she can pitch to them, then she’s going to be able to pitch to a lot of the best ones in the country. And vice versa, if our hitters can get on. …”
Lee, of course, isn’t going to back down at all. She never does against anyone.
“She gets mad when they get on, and they get frustrated when they don’t get on,” Smith said.
“So it’s kind of funny, a little back and forth.”
When it comes to Becker, Lee may have damaged her own ability to get her out in practice while sharpening the Rebels’ chances to win in games.
“Well, I kicked myself last year because I used to get her out with a backdoor curve,” Lee said.
“And then we went after practice one day, and I threw like 100 to her in the cage so she could (learn to) read it. And then ever since then, she has hit them.”
Becker smiled but demurred at the success.
“We just have our days,” she said. “Some days I will be on the entire time, and the next day in
intrasquad she gets me out every time.”
That brought a laugh from Lee.
“It’s all or nothing,” she said. “It’s not like 1 for 3 or something. It’s 3 for 3 or 0 for 3.”
It will be all or nothing Sunday in Tempe for Ole Miss. The Rebels must beat the Sun Devils twice to advance to the super regionals. One loss will end their season.
But that’s the way it was Saturday night, too. And the competitive Lee and Becker came through in tough spots to deliver the win.
Lee was battling all night. Long Beach State put runs on base every inning except the fourth. The real moment of truth came in the top of the sixth. A pair of singles started the inning, and another single after fielder’s choice loaded the bases with one out for a dangerous Julia Lombardi from Long Beach State.
“I just knew they were going to swing the crap out of the bat, basically,” Lee said about the
situation. “And so I needed them to overswing on my pitches. They did just that. I needed to keep a clear head, which I think that I did, and just stay as one with our defense and go through what I know how to do – get a ground ball. Four then One. (Get the force at home and then go to first base). We practice it day in and day out on the field, four then one, four then one. And that’s really what I
She got her wish. On the first pitch, Lombardi hit a comebacker that Lee threw back to catcher Autumn Gillespie for the force out at home. Gillespie then fired down to first baseman Brittany Finney to get Lombardi for the inning-ending double play. The lift to Ole Miss was noticeable.
Then it was Becker’s turn leading off the bottom of the inning.
“Right before I got into the box, coach told me, “You get on, we’re scoring,’” Becker said. “It’s
just the pressure was on. It was like, ‘All right, I get on, I know we’re going to end up scoring.’ We’re going to do everything it takes.”
Becker did get on an infield single, then advanced to second base on a passed ball. Kaylee Horton’s groundout advanced Becker to third with one out, but Long Beach State second baseman Grayce Majam , who transferred from Ole Miss after last season, froze Becker at third with a diving
snare of Finney’s line drive that would have been a run-scoring single.
But with two outs, Abbey Latham, who already had three home runs and a double in the regional, came up with another double just off the outstretched glove of Lombardi, scoring Becker with the game’s only run.
Lee then made it stand up in the seventh, giving up just a two-out single before getting a
groundout to end the game.
“We’re all pretty competitive, obviously, but for some reason I think that we dig down a little deeper when it gets to that point.,” Lee said. “I know I do, personally. It’s just a little bit more pressure, and I love that feeling. Like, I love the pressure feeling. It would be boring if everything was perfect 24-7.”
Lee stopped herself for a moment there and grinned.
“I’d like it sometimes if maybe I threw a perfect game here and there,” she said. “But it would be a little bit boring if everything just went my way all the time. Who wants
boring? Not me.”
Lee will get another crack at Arizona State on Sunday. The Sun Devils knocked her out after 3 1/3 innings in Saturday afternoon’s 7-1 ASU win. Kindra Hackbarth and Marisa Stankiewicz homered in that game for ASU, but the hero was senior pitcher Breanna Macha, who pitched a complete game three-hitter with nine strikeouts, letting ace G Juarez rest for the day.
That game put Ole Miss into the elimination game Saturday. Long Beach State got there by
taking out New Mexico State with an eight-run explosion in the first inning on its way to a 9-0 win in five innings.
Jessica Flores was the surprise pitcher for Long Beach State in those two games over ace Cielo Meza, who battled wildness Friday. But Flores rose to the task in shutting out the Aggies and then holding Ole Miss off the scoreboard until the sixth inning.