Brashear steps up behind and at the plate

Justin Brashear is getting to do what he's always wanted to do - play catcher for an SEC baseball team. Although he's been at Ole Miss for two prior seasons, he's just now enjoying being an everyday player in the country's best baseball league.

Justin Brashear waited his turn. It wasn't always easy.

The highly-touted all-star high school catcher from Lake Charles, La., arrived at Ole Miss ready, willing, and eager to be the Rebels' catcher. Problem was Barry Gunther was already here and had a two-year head start.

That actually wasn't a problem at all, certainly not for the team, because it gave Brashear a couple of years to learn while playing in selected games. And of course the Rebels were big winners, hosting Regionals each year and a Super Regional last year.

But now it's 2006, and it's Brashear's junior campaign. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder has shown this season much of what made him such a highly-recruited prospect out of Barbe High School.

His power numbers have been better than his batting average. He's hit nine home runs to lead the team in that department, has eight doubles, and one triple. His batting average is not necessarily all that great at .260. But it's an improvement over his first two seasons when he played sporadically. He's also walked 22 times, third on the squad.

Some of his home runs have come at dramatic moments, but none moreso than the solo leadoff shot in the eighth to tie the Sunday finale with LSU and boost the Rebels to an 11-8 victory and the sweep.

"I told (UM teammate and fellow Louisianan) Alex Presley that I had a dream on Tuesday (before the LSU series) that I hit a big home run on Sunday," Brashear said. "Actually in my dream it was a walkoff to win it. Alex kinda ribbed me a little bit on Sunday (about only tying the game 8-8). I didn't win the game; I just tied it."

Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco disagreed.

"Yes, the home run he hit only tied the game, but it was a gamewinner," said the sixth-year Rebel mentor. "It got us started for four runs in that eighth inning, and it basically won the game for us, although it actually only tied it."

Whatever the case, it was one of the top moments for Brashear in his Rebel career and an important one for his team.

"Playing against LSU was something I've dreamed about since I've been here," Brashear said. "To get a big hit like that was even more special."

It was one of many special moments for a Rebel team that's won its last 11 games heading into tonight's first of three contests at Kentucky. First pitch is set for 5:30 p.m. CT.

Ole Miss is 31-15 overall and 13-8 in SEC play. Kentucky is 34-11 and like the Rebels 13-8 in league play. That's good for a second-place tie in the overall SEC race with South Carolina, also 13-8, and behind league-leading Alabama at 15-6.

Tonight's pitching matchup has LHP Aaron Tennyson (Sr., 4-1, 3.30) of UK going against LHP Craig Rodriguez (Jr., 3-1, 3.76 ERA) of UM.

Kentucky, a team that's had a lot offensive success this spring, is having one of its best baseball seasons in years. The Rebels are also now playing like they expected to all along.

Brashear says this year's team has quietly but steadily caught up to what last year's team was able to do by this time, and he believes this one can keep it going as last year's did with a strong postseason run.

"This team right now is hotter than last year's team to me," said Brashear, a high school All-American in 2003 and a three-time all-state pick in Louisiana. "Obviously we miss all the guys from last year. But this year's team is coming together, and we are so confident we'll win every time we go out. We expect to win every game. Earlier in the season, that wasn't the case. Now it is."

One of the reasons is a solid and confident catcher named Justin Brashear.

"Justin's swinging better this year and has obviously had a good year behind the plate, especially throwing out runners," Bianco said. "He's a good kid who's paid his dues and a kid that has waited his turn. He was a high-profile recruit out of high school. Unfortunately for him he played behind the team captain (Barry Gunther) for a couple of years. He handled it well. He's a class act on and off the field.

"He's a good student and a good leader," Bianco continued. "He's been involved in a lot of things outside the field of play like the athlete advisory committee, some things like that which people don't talk much about. He's been really good for the program. He's really played better and is more comfortable in all areas since playing more this season. Not just at the plate but also defensively. And he continues to improve."

Assistant coach Stuart Lake agrees that Brashear has come on strong in 2006.

"Justin's always been a guy with unlimited potential," said Lake, the Rebels' hitting coach. "He's always worked hard. He's been a guy that comes to work every day. I give him full credit for what he's been able to do this season. He has finally been in a position to help the team. He's doing so many things to help this team, and that is great for Justin.

"Justin's always been an extremely powerful hitter," Lake continued. "He's made some great adjustments along the way in controlling his swing and getting good pitches. He's worked so hard at it."

And been patient, which at times wasn't always easy. But Brashear says he credits those from his past for him getting where he is today, and he wants to carry on that legacy to the younger Rebels.

"Barry taught me how to prepare myself and be ready when it was my time," Brashear said. "I'm trying to do that for Brett (Basham) and the other guys. I know that's part of my role as well."

A role that for Brashear hopefully includes being a catcher in a Super Regional next month, just like Gunther was, and even beyond – like Omaha.

Gametimes Saturday and Sunday at Kentucky are 1 p.m. CT and 12 noon CT respectively.

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