OXFORD — Like a hot 3-point shooter coming up clutch or a seasoned soccer player burying a penalty kick in the back of the net, Ole Miss pitcher Will Ethridge was so effective on Friday might because he seemingly couldn't miss.
Ethridge was at his best on Friday night, allowing two runs on three hits across seven innings in the Rebels' 16-2 win over Jacksonville State in the Oxford Regional. Between a leadoff double to open the first inning and a two-out double in the top of the seventh inning, Ethridge retired 20 Gamecocks in a row, allowing the first-inning runner to score but otherwise letting no other players on the bases.
And it wasn't as if Ethridge was overpowering the Gamecocks with a wipeout breaking ball or a flame-channeling fastball. The junior only had three strikeouts all game. But he mixed his three pitches with uncanny command and consistently worked low in the strike zone, inducing nine of his 20 consecutive outs via groundout and only allowing four of those outs to leave the infield.
"In my opinion he didn't miss over the heart of the plate," Jacksonville State senior catcher Nic Gaddis said of Ethridge. "Generally whenever you're facing somebody, they'll make some mistakes over the middle of the plate that you can take advantage of. There was only a handful, if that, that he did. I thought he really located, commanded both sides of the plate with both pitches really well."
"As an experienced guy, I thought he lived on the outside when he had to live on the outside," added junior centerfielder Tre Kirklin, who hit the leadoff double versus Ethridge. "And when he had to throw a breaking ball he got it over for a strike. He pretty much commanded the zone all night."
Ethridge's synopsis of his day wasn't far off from his opponents' characterizations. The right-hander said his goal for the game was to fill the zone with strikes and keep pitches low to induce as many ground-ball outs as possible, a game plan that worked. Sure, Ethridge benefitted from some impressive infield defense behind him, including a stop up the middle from shortstop Grae Kessinger in the first inning that potentially prevented a Gamecocks' rally after the double.
But for the most part, Jacksonville State's batters weren't making all that much hard contact against Ethridge. It got to a point where in the sixth inning, Ethridge says, he realized he was putting away batters in order as if he were in the middle of a special performance.
"About the sixth inning, I was like 'Hey, I haven't given up a hit," Ethridge joked postgame. "Then I was like 'If I had gotten the first guy out I'd be rolling with a perfect game right now.' But I was thinking about just filling up the strike zone, keep putting up zeroes for us."
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said Ethridge's command Friday might've been the best he's had all season. And that's saying a lot, especially for a pitcher who lowered his season ERA to 2.91 after Friday night. But Friday night did mark just the second time this season that Ethridge went seven innings and allowed three hits with no walks, joining his performance against Kentucky on April 12.
But against Kentucky Ethridge was overpowering, striking out 11 batters and using 104 pitches. Friday night Ethridge needed just 78 pitches to finish seven innings, and he came out not because he was struggling, but because his team was winning by a score that could only be considered close in football.
In what will almost certainly be Ethridge's final appearance before the 2019 MLB Draft, which begins on Monday, the junior looked as good as he ever has in Oxford. A projected early-round draft pick, Ethridge probably won't have many more nights like Friday while wearing Italy blue.
But if that was Ethridge's final start at Swayze Field, he went out without missing. That's about all you can ask for.
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.