HOOVER, Ala. — Meet Matt Cronin. He's the No. 74 draft-eligible prospect in the 2019 MLB Draft according to MLB Pipeline. He came into Friday with a 2.13 ERA and 11 saves, averaging 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings, including seven strikeouts in three innings against Ole Miss this season. Ole Miss left fielder Thomas Dillard says Cronin has the best fastball in America.
But Cronin is also the Arkansas pitcher Dillard and Ole Miss shortstop Grae Kessinger bested to eliminate the Razorbacks from the SEC Tournament and advance the Rebels to the semifinals.
With one out and runners on first and second base in the bottom of the eighth inning and Ole Miss trailing 2-1 Friday, Dillard walked to the plate to face Arkansas right-hander Zebulon Vermillion. But the switch-hitting Dillard never actually prepared to face Vermillion. He knew Cronin was coming.
"In the back of my mind I knew it was going to be Cronin," Dillard said after the game. "As soon as I saw [Arkansas catcher Zack] Plunkett walk out there, I went back to the dugout and got my right-handed Evo shield and my right-handed helmet."
So in came the left-handed relief ace to face Dillard. The move wasn't a surprise. Cronin had pitched to Dillard twice this season and struck him out both times. Heck, Cronin struck Dillard out on Wednesday. On three pitches.
But Friday was Dillard's day to win. Dillard ripped the first pitch he saw up the middle for a single, scoring catcher Cooper Johnson from second base to tie the score at 2-2.
"He's got electric stuff," Dillard said. "He's blown it by me a few times in the past. If anything I was going to pull it into the dugout instead of being late. When he gets his fastball up in the zone with that backspin it's really, really good. So luckily I got a pitch down in the zone and I was able to put a good swing on it."
In addition to scoring Johnson, Dillard's single moved second baseman Jacob Adams from first to third. One batter later, Kessinger lifted a sacrifice fly into centerfield, scoring Adams and giving Ole Miss the decisive 3-2 lead the Rebels won by.
The event ran in direct contrast to what had happened to Ole Miss in the previous two days in Hoover. On both Wednesday versus Arkansas and Thursday versus Texas A&M, Ole Miss put two runners on base in the eighth inning of a game the Rebels were either losing or tied. Neither time were the Rebels able to plate a runner. Friday, Ole Miss scored two.
Add together the bottom of the eighth inning on Friday with the top of the ninth inning on Thursday and that makes it twice in two days that Ole Miss took its first and only lead in its last time at the plate in a game. The Rebels might be batting below .200 across four games in Hoover, but they have three wins to show for it.
Ask Dillard why? It's a testament to the way Ole Miss' roster is built.
"The fact that we have a veteran offense," Dillard said. "We know that you have to play nine innings. You have to get all 27 outs. The guys at the back, we want that challenge. We want the best bullpen arms. We want the best starters. Even if we have a bad seven innings, we still have two innings left to put an inning together."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.