Friday Night Lights

The tone-setter for any weekend baseball series is usually the Friday night starter. This year, that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of junior Matt Crouse. Read about it inside.

In the recent annals of Ole Miss baseball, which has been as successful as any Rebel sports program in the last decade, there has been a common thread that led to good records.

Ole Miss has been blessed with excellent Friday night starters.

Drew Pomeranz, Lance Lynn, Will Kline and Mark Holliman come to mind quickly.

Perhaps no duty is more important in college baseball.

Friday night's game can, and usually does, set the tone for the whole weekend. A win on Friday night takes the pressure off the triumphant team and puts extra pressure on the losers.

Rebel Coach Mike Bianco named Crouse his opening-day starter Monday
Courtesy: Bruce Newman
"In the past, we have had some outstanding Friday guys, guys who you felt were going to give you a chance to win every time they took the mound, and that's so important," said Rebel Coach Mike Bianco.

This year, that duty, and the responsibility that goes with it, will fall on junior lefthander Matt Crouse, a 6-foot-4, 185-pounder who appeared in 21 games a year ago, mostly in relief, but who posted a 5-1 mark in a starting role, mostly against mid-week opponents.

"It was a tough call," Bianco continued. "We had two or three guys battle right down to the wire for the Friday spot in the rotation, but in the end Matt won out."

Bianco said it was not because Crouse has the best "stuff" on the mound. It was for an intangible.

"One common thread all of our past Friday starters had was their toughness, their competitiveness," Mike stated. "That's what we see in Matt. He's got good stuff, for sure, but not any better than some of our other pitchers.

"What he's got that separates him is that he loves to compete. He competes with everything he's got and that's a very important quality to have."

Matt, who played one year of JUCO ball before coming to Ole Miss, is excited about the opportunity, but he's keeping a cool head in his approach.

"It's an honor to try to follow in the footprints of Pomeranz, but I really can't focus on all the great pitchers before me who were the Friday starters," said Matt. "I have to go out and make pitches. I have to go out and do my job and help this team win."

Crouse was, in common parlance, a string bean last year, as skinny as a rail. Heading into this season, he has packed on 15 pounds of muscle. He's still in the thin range, but his 15 extra pounds have made a difference.

"I'm stronger and have more stamina, so that allows me to repeat my mechanics easier," he explained. "I'm throwing more pitches where I want and more pitches in the strike zone.

Crouse said his added strength and increased stamina has aided his mechanics
Courtesy: Bruce Newman
"The added weight has not really improved my velocity much, but I am able to maintain my velocity better in the later innings. When my pitch count gets up, I have been able to maintain my velocity and control better due to the added strength and stamina."

Matt's pitch count threshold has improved as a result.

"Last year, my limit was around 90 pitches where I felt real effective. During the summer in the Cape, I got over 100 pitches a couple of times and felt strong and good," he noted.

Every college pitcher this year will be facing a new weapon from the hitters they face - a toned down aluminum bat with a smaller sweet spot.

Crouse dismisses what the layman might think would be an advantage. It would stand to reason that with the "deadened" bat, less mistake pitches would leave the yard, but Crouse doesn't look at it that way.

"I think you can probably make a mistake with a guy lower in the order and might be able to get away with it, but the rocket launchers in this league - like our Matt Smith and Matt Snyder - are still going to lose a mistake pitch," he explained. "The best way to approach the new bat deal is to not think about it at all.

"The guys in this league, and everyone has them, can hit and you better be sharp or they will make you pay."

Crouse has not added any new pitches to his arsenal, but he says he's sharpened up his repertoire.

"My fastball was good last year, but I needed to sharpen up my breaking ball and changeup. I think I have done that," he noted. "I have been able to throw both those pitches for strikes this year so far.

"Last year, my curve was more of a show-me pitch. This year in camp I have been able to throw it harder and throw it for strikes. I don't throw a slider, but my curve is now up to 73-74 miles an hour and it's been effective in camp."

Crouse is also the beneficiary of the Rebs expecting to have a strong bullpen in Jake Morgan and Brett Huber. The meaning in that is clear - he may not have to go as deep into games as some Friday guys before him.

"Knowing they are out there waiting takes some pressure off for sure. As starters, we'll try to go as long as we can, but we know if we can get to the seventh inning that they are likely to close it out for us," he closed. "That's a big confidence boost for any starter."

Friday night lights. Friday night starts.

Matt Crouse, you are the man.

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