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June 1, 2009

McCready: Pomeranz delivers unforgettable performance

Drew Pomeranz walked up to Mike Bianco during the late innings Sunday and told the Ole Miss coach that he could take the baseball if the Rebels needed an inning from him.

"Maybe I should have done that," Bianco said with a laugh, referring to Ole Miss' agonizing 10-9 loss to Western Kentucky, one that included a blown six-run lead that forced Monday's do-or-die NCAA Oxford Regional finale.

Bianco compared Pomeranz's effort Monday to Curt Schilling's bloody-sock effort in the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Ole Miss coach, who has now led his team to four NCAA Super Regionals in the last five years, called it "a legendary performance," one that "people will remember for the rest of their lives."

If you were one of the 8,255 in attendance Monday, you know why Bianco used such lofty rhetoric. If you weren't at Swayze Field, well, sorry. You missed a gem, one of those moments when a player puts his team on its back and does something so special that it reminds you why you follow sports in the first place.

Pomeranz, pitching on just two days rest, threw a complete-game two-hitter, giving up one unearned run, walking one batter and striking out 16 while throwing an economical 116 pitches in Ole Miss' 4-1 win over a confident Western Kentucky team that showed up Monday evening fully intending to spend the coming weekend in Charlottesville, Va.

No one in the stadium saw it coming, not Bianco, not Pomeranz's teammates, no one with the possible exception of Pomeranz himself. And that's hard to know, really. See, left-handed pitchers, for some mysterious reason, are often a bit aloof, a little distant, a tad different.

Pomeranz is no exception. The Rebels' left-hander can be a little moody. He's polite and cooperative with media, but his answers are often guarded, usually revealing precious little about his innermost feelings.

"I didn't really give myself a set number of innings or a set number of anything," Pomeranz said Monday, appearing to be the one guy in the stadium who wasn't all that impressed with what had just happened. "I was just going out there trying to eat up outs."

On Monday night, with Ole Miss' season hanging in the balance, against a team that can hit as well as any in the country, Pomeranz didn't have to say a word to show everyone what he's all about. Pomeranz didn't have to tell anyone that his desire for greatness burns deep. His actions made that crystal clear. Pomeranz didn't have to discuss his competitive fire, for it burned bright enough for anyone watching to not only see it but also to feel it.

The Hilltoppers, who pummeled Missouri and Ole Miss pitching throughout the weekend, really never had a chance. Throw out what should have been ruled an error on Ole Miss first baseman Matt Smith and a bobbled ball by second baseman Evan Button and Pomeranz would have thrown a no-hitter. To get bogged down in errors and sporadic blindness would take away from the point, which, simply put, is this: Pomeranz stepped into a new stratosphere Monday night. A legend, frankly, was born.

"What he did today was just unbelievable," said Ole Miss pitcher Phillip Irwin, Pomeranz's roommate. "I've never seen that from a pitcher ever. I don't think I could ever do that myself."

Irwin, who pitched Saturday's win over Western Kentucky, told Bianco Monday he thought he could pitch an inning. He thought Pomeranz could give the Rebels five innings Monday.

"Six max," Irwin said. "Five was what I thought we needed. I thought I could throw an inning, but nine innings? That's unbelievable."

Pomeranz's career will never be viewed the same way again. Whatever debate there may have been about the identity of Ole Miss' ace has been settled. Scott Bittle is phenomenal, sure, but all season long, Pomeranz has taken the ball and kept his team in games. On Monday night, Pomeranz took the ball and kept his team in a season.

"From the first inning, I was just going out there trying to hit my spots and get ahead of hitters and keep them off balance and just focus on one hitter at a time," Pomeranz said. "Honestly, I was just thinking pitch to pitch, trying to hit my spots. I wasn't thinking about anything else."

"He's a horse," Bianco said. "He's a warrior out there."

His fastball had pop. His curveball was not hittable. His change-up was dazzling. Pomeranz made it look effortless, appearing to get stronger as the game moved along. Nothing fazed him.

"When your arm feels really good, you tend to overthrow your breaking stuff because you want to throw it really hard," Irwin said. "If his arm wasn't feeling very good, I thought his breaking ball was going to be even better because he wouldn't try to overthrow it. That's exactly what happened. It was the best curveball he had all year. Not only was he locating his fastball, but they couldn't touch his curve. He really impressed me tonight. I thought that was unbelievable."

Make no mistake, Sunday's loss was a potential season-killer, a setback that could have been difficult for a program to recover from had Monday night gone badly. Some 24 hours later, Ole Miss is back in college baseball's equivalent of the Sweet Sixteen, just two wins away from a trip to the College World Series. Sunday's collapse is now just a character-building footnote.

Sure, there were other standouts Monday. Smith was 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI. Kyle Henson and David Phillips had huge hits, but Monday was all about Pomeranz.

With everything on the line, Pomeranz found a level of focus that has been elusive and matched his immense potential. It reads like a storybook, but it's true. Pomeranz came of age, put on a performance for the ages and turned a nightmare into a potential dream-come-true.

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