OXFORD | Texas A&M freshman Braden Shewmake settled back into his stance Saturday night, representing the tying run and facing a 2-2 count and two outs against Ole Miss closer Dallas Woolfolk in the ninth inning.
Shewmake, who leads the Aggies in home runs, doubles and two-out RBIs, had a decision to make on what was coming from the sophomore’s right hand. There’s the 97 MPH fastball that garners the most attention and a low-80s slider that Woolfolk can command in any count.
But on the final pitch of the game that struck out Shewmake to give Ole Miss the 6-4 win, Woolfolk threw a changeup, a third pitch that changed planes and ended things when the talented middle-of-the-order freshman swung through it.
Flashy and effective, Woolfolk has 12 saves this season, which are one away from tying Stephen Head’s 13 for the school record. The 12 are in a second-place tie with Brett Huber’s 2010 and 2013 seasons.
“That’s really been difference in the year,” said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco about Woolfolk’s secondary offerings. “He’s always had this velocity. But part of the problem is he couldn’t get the breaking ball over and we didn’t even really touch on the changeup last year.
“Now he has all three. There aren’t a lot of guys on the back end who throw three different pitches and will use them like he will. He attacks hitters in their weaknesses. He can throw fastballs in and changeups and things other guys won’t do.”
Woolfolk has appeared 25 times in Ole Miss’ 53 games and will get a chance to tie Head the first time Ole Miss (31-22, 13-14) gets a late lead during its final series of the year at Auburn (32-21, 14-13). Game times are 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 1 p.m Saturday. The Southaven, Mississippi, product has a 2.00 ERA with 40 strikeouts and only five walks in 36 innings.
He got nine outs and two saves during the Rebels’ series win against Texas A&M, and he’s stayed fresh despite an elevated workload compared to the 17.2 innings he threw as a freshman.
“Most of the time I feel pretty good, especially if I’ve had a couple days of rest,” Woolfolk said. “But even after two times on a weekend I feel good. I stay on top of my diet and listen to trainer Josh Porter. We flush the arm and have a routine. We do the little things right to stay fresh.”
Huber, who is now Ole Miss’ director of baseball operations, holds the school record for career saves at 38. Woolfolk is sixth with 13 after having just one last season. Huber sees Woolfolk work daily, and he’s been impressed by the growth year over year. He’s learned to pitch instead of throw, and there’s a maturity that isn’t always obvious to anyone but teammates.
Woolfolk isn’t a talker. He’s polite and accommodating with the media, but long answers aren’t typical, and while it’s a similar personality with his teammates, Huber sees the competitive, team-first side that makes him more valuable than just the ninth-inning role.
“He’s really special because he has the confidence to go at people,” Huber said. “He has goals. He wants to play for Team USA and I respect that but he deserves that because he’s in here in the fourth and fifth inning to get guys rallied. He’s encouraging. It’s not about him. I respect that the most about him.”
As a freshman last season, teams keyed on the fastball. It was hard and it popped radar guns, but it was relatively flat, giving opponents a shot to square it up. The slider and changeup weren’t developed, and it caused some less-than-clean outings even though he led the team with a 2.55 ERA.
Ole Miss’ coaching staff challenged him to find more run on his fastball. He succeeded with that without losing command. Huber said Woolfolk routinely averages 96 MPH per outing and is between 60 and 80 percent with his strike percentage during most appearances.
Bianco has had many high-profile relievers during his 17 years from Head to Scott Bittle and Jake Morgan to Huber and Wyatt Short. He doesn’t want to pick a favorite or a best because each is a snowflake in how they go about things. Some could be extended into longer outings, and Woolfolk hasn’t had to do that consistently to this point.
“They are special in different ways and do it in different ways,” Bianco said. “It’s hard to say for three outs and probably unfair for Dallas because he hasn’t even done it for a complete season, but I’m amazed at how it happens. I remember when Scott Bittle got here no one wanted him to finish a game then by the end no one wanted anyone else to pitch. Morgan you could extend him a little bit but not like Bittle. In fairness to Dallas we haven’t extended him like that. To get three outs Dallas has been pretty good though.”
Huber sees one main difference — physical ability. Other than maybe Bittle’s devastating cutter that helped him lead the nation in strikeouts per nine innings, the other closers haven’t had Woolfolk’s arsenal.
Opponents are hitting .194 off Woolfolk this season, and his late-game stability is a major reason Ole Miss remains alive for a postseason at-large berth. He’s had a scoreless outing 80 percent of the time and has only allowed a run once when pitching a single inning. That outing against Missouri also ended with a save.
“The other guys we know we don’t have the best stuff in the country, but we had the mentality that when we’re on the mound we’re the best,” Huber said. “Dallas has that and also has the stuff that backs that up. He’s the best closer in the country.”