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Kirksey, pitchers impress in Rebels' home-opening win

 

Senior designated hitter Zach Kirksey led the eight-run, 11-hit barrage with a three-run home run in the fourth to lift the No. 20 Ole Miss baseball team to an 8-1 win against Arkansas State in its home opener yesterday at Swayze Field/Oxford-University Stadium. 

The Rebels (2-1) used five pitchers, including four freshmen, and limited the Arkansas State Red Wolves (0-3) to just one run on five hits.

“I thought it was a good, clean game by us,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “Like with everything, there is good and bad, but more good today. We’re a little better than even we played tonight. We just have to be a little cleaner and be a little less nervous on the mound. But hopefully we’re getting the jitters out.”

Freshman right-hander Sam Smith (1-0) got the start on the mound for the Rebels and lasted four innings, giving up only one run on three hits with a walk and a strikeout. 

The one run came in the first on back-to-back hits to give the Red Wolves an early 1-0 lead.

“I felt pretty good coming out in my first start,” Smith said. “My defense really made me look good. Blake Newalu is making clutch plays over there and Matt Snyder at first. I got to give it up to the defense because they did good job out there today.”

From there, however, the Ole Miss pitching staff dominated, and the Rebel bats began to come alive.

In the third inning, junior outfielder Tanner Mathis hit a leadoff double off the wall before junior second baseman Alex Yarbrough brought him in on a RBI groundout to tie the game. The Rebels took control of the game in the fourth when senior designated hitter Zach Kirksey hit a home run into the student section in right field to give Ole Miss a 4-1 advantage.

“I thought Kirksey really made the separation for us,” Bianco said. “He gave us a little breathing room. He and Senquez Golson both had good nights. We are even better than we are playing right now.”

Ole Miss added four more runs in the fifth on back-to-back doubles from junior shortstop Blake Newalu and freshman outfielder Senquez Golson.

“I was going for three,” Golson said of the double. “But I came up around second (base), and I missed the whole base. I was like ‘Well, I guess I’ve got to go back now.’”

A lot has been said about Golson playing both baseball and football for the Rebels, and he was happy to get his first start.

“It felt good,” he said. “I’ve been working. It’s a hard transition coming over from football to baseball. I’ve still got a long way to go. It just felt good to play. There’s no better place to play.”

After the fourth, Bianco turned the game over to his bullpen.

Freshman right-hander Josh Laxer came in for Smith to start the fifth. After giving up a couple of walks in his first inning, Laxer settled down and gave up no runs or hits in two innings pitched. Junior right-hander Blair Wright, as well as freshmen right-handers Chris Ellis and Casey Mulholland, all came in for an inning apiece. Wright and Ellis each gave up no runs on no hits.

Mulholland pitched around damage in the ninth to close the game for the Rebels. He gave up two hits that both could have easily gone down as errors. Golson lost a pop fly in right field, then freshman Jake Overbey and Mathis had some confusion on a pop up that landed right between the two, before Mulholland stranded two runners with back-to-back outs.

“I feel blessed,” Mulholland said of returning from Tommy John surgery. “Good things came with time. To finally get out there and do what I’ve been dreaming about for the past two years felt awesome.”

Ole Miss continues its 12-game home stand with a three-game series against UNC-Wilmington this weekend.