Eric Fowler walked into the locker room from Swayze Field after practice Monday. He was the first guy in, having completed his workouts, running, and conditioning after team practice.
Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, the junior left-handed pitcher from Duck Hill and Kirk Academy in Grenada will be the first guy out – on the mound, that is. He's the starter for Ole Miss against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
The 6th-ranked Rebels - and Fowler himself - hope he can last a long time out there, just like he did two weeks ago in a 3-0 victory over Southeast Missouri State when he went seven complete and struck out a career-high nine batters in what was clearly one of his best collegiate performances.
Fowler's had a journeyman career for the Rebels. Redshirted in the spring of 2002, he pitched in 18 games with seven starts as a redshirt freshman in 2003, including striking out eight Bulldogs in one game against MSU.
In 2004 as a sophomore, the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder made 15 appearances including nine starts. This season he's 1-1 with a 4.66 ERA in 9.2 innings pitched.
Things were a little rocky early in the year for him. Then came SEMO and perhaps his best outing ever at Ole Miss.
He was scheduled to be the starter in last Tuesday's game at Memphis. But that one was called early in the day because of weather.
Now he will be in the spotlight for the biggest non-conference game of the season for both Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Eric says he's ready.
"I've started some conference games before, but this is my first time to start a Mayor's Trophy game," said Fowler, now 22 and a veteran of all things baseball as far as the college game goes. "It's a Mississippi thing. It's a rivalry deal. I understand that being from Mississippi. It's an important game to me and it is for the team and school."
Maybe just as important as a win, these non-conference games against quality competition are also a chance for players to make a mark and perhaps move up as far as their weekend worth is concerned. Sometimes, as is the case with Fowler this spring, there is simply little room on the weekends with the likes of Mark Holliman, Stephen Head, Anthony Cupps, and Matt Maloney already firmly entrenched.
But the weeknight starters are very important as well, and there is always the fact that one or two good outings during the midweek might actually lead to weekend action if a situation calls for it. Fowler has seen that – and been there - before.
"I'm satisfied with this role," the sociology major said. "I just want to help the team. I'm happy. If this is what (Bianco) wants me to do, then I'll do it. If being successful in these games means I get a chance to even work out of the pen on weekends or something, then that would be great. I'm just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, and trying to be ready when I'm called on."
On Tuesday night, he will be called on to face a team he's faced before, but in a new situation, before a packed house of rowdy fans of both schools in the capital city.
"This is definitely one of our biggest non-conference games, certainly intensity-wise I'd say," Fowler said. "I know Mississippi State is playing well. I'm just going in like it was any other game and do the best that I can do."
Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco says he's looking forward to seeing what Fowler can do – again – and has confidence that his last time out was a foreshadowing of good things to come.
"We believe that we want him to become 'that guy' who starts these important midweek games," the fifth-year head coach of the Rebels said. "Right now we like him there. Eric has pitched well. Against Southeast Missouri, he looked like the pitcher we always knew he could be. We've seen that before, and we hope to see that again."
Fowler says the two-week layoff between games might be a positive rather than a negative.
"I've been throwing bullpens, short work, things like that, to keep my arm in shape," he said. "But more than anything, it may have helped to give my arm some rest. It's no problem not throwing for two weeks (in a game). It may turn out to be the best thing that I haven't pitched in a game in a while."
On Tuesday night, he will indeed pitch in a game; the big one that is The Mayor's Trophy.
The Bulldogs, 17-4 this season, lead the Mayor's Trophy series 13-12, but the Rebels have won three straight and five of the last six. Ole Miss won last year's Mayor's Trophy contest 10-4. The two teams are scheduled to play a three-game SEC series April 29-May 1 in Oxford.
Ole Miss, 19-5 on the year, moved up one spot to No. 6 in this week's Baseball America Top 25 and jumped two spots to No. 7 in this week's Sports Weekly/ESPN Coaches Top 25. The Rebels are also ranked No. 15 in this week's Collegiate Baseball poll and No. 16 in the NCBWA rankings.
Mississippi State is ranked as high as No. 13 by the NCBWA. The Bulldogs are also ranked No. 14 by Collegiate Baseball, No. 18 in the Sports Weekly/ESPN Coaches Top 25 and No. 21 by Baseball America.
The Bulldogs will counter Fowler with junior left-hander Brooks Dunn (3-0, 5.31 ERA).
Junior outfielder Brian Pettway will carry a school-record 24-game hit streak into Tuesday night's Mayor's Trophy game. He broke the previous mark of 21 games, set by Kary Bridges in 1992 and Chad Sterbens in 2002, with a home run in the fourth inning last Friday night at Tennessee.
Pettway is hitting .452, ranking third in the SEC, with a team-high 10 home runs and 30 RBI. He is second in the conference in home runs and tied for fifth in runs batted in.
Sophomore outfielder Mark Wright is batting .406 to rank eighth in the SEC, and junior first baseman Stephen Head is hitting .347 with nine home runs and a team-leading 31 RBI. His nine home runs is third in the SEC and his 31 RBI is tied for second.
As a team, the Rebels rank third in the SEC with a .326 team batting average.
The Bulldogs are hitting .305 as a team with eight HRs and have outscored the opposition 153-98.
Junior OF Joseph Hunter leads the team with a .397 average. Junior Thomas Berkery, junior Brad Corley and junior Brad Jones have all hit two HRs each, and Berkery leads the Bulldogs with 19 RBI.
The pitching staff has a 3.82 team ERA and opponents are hitting .257 against them with eight HRs.
Mississippi State is fielding .969 as a team, having been charged with 26 errors in 21 games.
Fowler, Rebs face State in Jackson Tuesday night
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