Thomas Dillard’s late home run lifts Ole Miss to another comeback win

Published 11:15 pm Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Everyone understood Southern Miss coach Scott Berry playing the odds. Even Thomas Dillard.

With the Golden Eagles’ 5-3 lead against Ole Miss in jeopardy with two on and two out in the bottom of the seventh inning Tuesday, Berry summoned left-hander Adam Jackson to face the switch-hitting Dillard, who came in hitting .330 on the season but just .179 in 28 right-handed at-bats. The strategy worked two innings earlier when Berry went to another lefty, Jacob Weirich, who struck out the Rebels’ home-run leader on four pitches with two runners on.

“They’re just playing the matchups, and I don’t blame them,” Dillard said.

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Turning Dillard around the second time backfired.

Dillard looked at Jackson’s first offering before belting a 1-0 fastball deep beyond the wall in left-center for a three-run homer, capping a rally from five runs down at Oxford-University Stadium to help No. 4 Ole Miss enter this weekend’s showdown against No. 5 Arkansas with the momentum of a 7-6 win over the 14th-ranked Golden Eagles. Dillard’s seventh home run of the season was just his second — and just his sixth hit all season — as a right-handed hitter.

“(Hitting) coach (Mike) Clem(ent) gave us the scouting report on the pitcher and said he was going to throw a lot of fastballs,” Dillard said. “I got a fastball and just put the barrel on it.”

Both of the right-handed bombs have come in the last week for Dillard, who extended his hitting streak to 15 games Tuesday. Chase Cockrell had a two-run double in the second to help the Rebels start cutting into USM’s 5-0 lead while Ryan Olenek, Nick Fortes and Tyler Keenan added two hits apiece for Ole Miss (23-3, 4-2).

“It’s getting a lot better,” Dillard said. “That at-bat, I was standing toward the right side of the field and then the first pitch, I felt like I got my foot down a little bit later. So I told myself to get my foot down and try to hit it over the batter’s eye (in center). I got my head out a little bit more than I wanted, but I still just put a good swing on it.”

Said Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, “We all know Thomas can hit right-handed. The numbers may not show it right now, but last year, it was the opposite. I think by the year’s end it will probably even out.”

Parker Caracci struck out two in the ninth for his third save in four games, though it was anything but easy.

LeeMarcus Boyd led off with a single and scored on Gabe Montenegro’s groundout after moving to third on a throwing error by Olenek. A walk and a single put the tying and go-ahead runs on for first baseman Hunter Slater, who had already hit two home runs and driven in four runs.

Slater sent the first pitch he saw from Caracci to the deepest part of the park in center, but Golsan tracked it down as he crashed into the wall to preserve the Rebels’ 10th comeback win of the season — and their first from a five-run deficit since a 7-5 win over Kentucky in May of 2016.

“We are a lot more mature,” Dillard said. “We know no matter what the score is that we’re always in the game. We just have to stay up.”

Greer Holston (1-0) picked up the win with 1 ⅔ innings of scoreless relief, but right-hander Houston Roth did much of the heavy lifting for a bullpen that recorded nearly all 27 outs after a rough start for freshman left-hander Jordan Fowler, who retired just one of the five batters he faced. Slater’s three-run homer in the first put USM (17-6) up 4-0 and ended Fowler’s night before Slater took Roth deep in the third to give the Golden Eagles their biggest lead of the night.

Roth didn’t allow any more runs in five innings of work, scattering seven hits and striking out seven while walking just one to keep the Rebels close. Nick Fortes’ bases-loaded fielder’s choice in the seventh got the Rebels closer before Dillard helped Ole Miss notch yet another come-from-behind victory with one swing.

“Stuff happens,” Roth said. “Fowler gave up a few good hits, and I knew going in that I was going to have to go a long way and act like a starter. … I’ve had some starts under my belt, so I just went out there and did what I did.”

Ole Miss’ series against Arkansas (18-7, 4-2) will begin Thursday. First pitch from Oxford-University Stadium is set for 6:30 p.m.