Every championship team has someone step up when perhaps it's least expected.
For Ole Miss, enter Alex Presley.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound sophomore, who had made a name for himself as a freshman as a force at the plate, had struggled as a sophomore. If one dramatic swing of the bat can make up for a season of disappointment, then the second-team freshman All-American in 2004 did that Saturday night in the ninth inning of the Rebels' 7-3 win over Oklahoma which sent Ole Miss to Sunday's championship game of the Oxford Regional.
Here was the situation. Presley had entered the game in the eighth inning to pinch run and to replace left fielder Mark Wright, the latter which has become a routine move of Rebel coaches late in games this season. In the Rebel ninth with Ole Miss up 4-3, there were two outs with Justin Henry on third base. Oklahoma decided to walk Stephen Head.
Great idea. Terrible result - if you are the Sooners.
Presley strolled to the plate, with one home run to his credit all season, and sent a 1-0 fast ball over the right field wall to increase the Ole Miss lead to 7-3.
Good thing Presley extended the lead for his team. Oklahoma, the home team in the contest, loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the ninth before Head, who relieved starter Matt Maloney to start the sixth, got the final two Sooners to strike out.
"Here's a guy that (UM assistant) Coach (Dan) McDonnell said just this week is going to have to hit a home run to help us get to Omaha," said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco of Presley, who hit game-winning home runs in back to back games against Tennessee on Grove Bowl weekend 2004. "He's in these type games and comes in to play defense. A lot of times he gets at-bats like this."
Presley, a regular everyday player in 2004 as a freshman who participated in 53 of the Rebels' 60 games starting 48 of them, has played in 60 of the Rebels' 64 games this year but only started 31. As the season has progressed, his playing time has diminished.
"This year individually has been pretty tough for me," said Presley, batting .289 with two home runs after hitting .311 last season with six home runs. "I started the first half of the year, but I just wasn't getting it done as I had expected to. My confidence took a hit. Baseball's a tough game to play. Now when I come in in the eighth or ninth, my at-bats are few and far between. So when I get up there I want to do something good, because it's all I think about for the next couple of games until I get up there again.
"It's been bittersweet for me, and finally I was able to come through."
The 46-18 Rebels, who outhit the Sooners 14-9, needed him to come through. Ole Miss led 1-0 in the first when Head doubled to right center to score Chris Coghlan who had reached on a single.
The lead was 2-0 in the fourth when Mark Wright doubled in Head who had reached on a base hit.
Oklahoma put a three-spot on the scoreboard in the fifth to take a 3-2 lead. But Ole Miss answered with two in the sixth to retake the lead at 4-3 when Wright homered to deep center field, a two-run blast that also scored Head who had walked.
Bianco then opted to move Head from first to the pitcher's mound, replacing Maloney who went five complete allowing three runs on six hits with three strikeouts and three walks. Head shut the Sooners, now 34-25, down until Presley's heroics in the top of the ninth gave him some needed cushion in the bottom of the frame.
The win went to Maloney, now 8-2. But the save was Head's 25th career one at UM, breaking Justin Huisman's old mark of 24 compiled from 1998-2000.
Bianco says Presley is a guy who simply comes to work every day and tries to get better so he can help the team.
"Alex never complains. He always works hard. He's always been there. He's always ready when you call on him."
Like Saturday as Bianco sought him out when he put him in to pinch run for Wright in the eighth.
"He's right there behind me as I'm yelling for him to get ready," Bianco said. "I mean he's right there a foot behind me with his helmet on yelling 'I'm ready. I'm ready to go.' That's the way he is."
Bianco, a part of many championship ballclubs through the years, says it is indeed a fact that players like Presley have to step up for a team to make a run in the postseason.
"You have to have those guys," he said. "Of course your stars have to be stars. But when you look back at it after it's over, there will be some guys who might not be the real headliners who actually made headlines throughout the run."
Saturday night, Presley did just that.
"I thought it was going to go out, but I wasn't sure," Presley said of his homer. "I haven't hit too many of those lately.
"But I figured I was due for something good to happen. I didn't necessarily think it was this moment that might be it. But it was and it worked out good."
Championship teams need guys like Alex Presley and moments like the one Saturday night if they are to make a run to glory. Chances are there will be more of them before the final chapter is written on this season.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, Ole Miss will play the winner of the Oklahoma-Maine game, which starts at 1 p.m., for the championship of the 2005 Oxford Regional. If the Rebels win Sunday, they move on to host a Super Regional. If they lose, then they will play again Monday at 7 p.m. to determine the Oxford Regional champion.
Junior LHP Eric Fowler (6-2, 3.01 ERA) will start for Ole Miss in the 5 p.m. Sunday game.
Presley's dramatic homer lifts Rebs to title game
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