Phil'n Up The Zone

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - With his bearded face flushed due to pitching four innings of shutout baseball in South Florida's furnace-like climate, Phillip Irwin walked off the Mark Light mound and received praise from his teammates in the form of high-fives and pats on the back.

The congratulatory gestures were well deserved. If not for the sophomore's effort, Sunday's daunting predicament would seem even more treacherous.

Irwin's first save of the season could easily be looked over as a pitcher, who hasn't thrown but once since early April, receiving mop-up work in a win that could likely mean nothing the next day when said team must tackle the difficult task of sweeping a regional doubleheader. However, that logic would be incorrect because the Collierville, Tenn., native didn't just save the game. He set the Rebels up to possibly save their season.

Ole Miss dropped the regional opener to Mizzou, and after the thrashing of Bethune-Cookman 14-1, is through one stage of four that must be accomplished if there is baseball to be played by the Rebels past Coral Gables. With all the loser's bracket work left, pitching depth is the one item where an unmatched premium is being placed.

Sunday brings a rematch with the Tigers at 11 a.m. (CST), and if successful, Ole Miss must tangle with top-ranked Miami less than an hour later. Win both and a winner-take-all final will be played Monday night.

Irwin's role this season has slowly diminished from midweek starter and reliable reliever to traveling cheerleader the last segment of the season. The right-hander was on the 25-man roster in Hoover, Ala., for the SEC Tournament, but he was the lone Ole Miss pitcher not to throw. Irwin admitted that he felt like the lost man at times in 2008.

"I did (feel forgotten), but when I wasn't pitching, I was a cheerleader in the dugout – get guys up who weren't playing well or pitchers not throwing well," Irwin said. "You still have a job to do when you aren't on the field."

But Saturday when he was needed most, Irwin was dominant with a career-high nine strikeouts and finished the game and more importantly spared the bullpen. The score was 13-1 when he entered, but Ole Miss is facing more than an opponent at this point. They are facing the heat, the quick turnaround and the lack of arms as the tournament progresses.

Winning three games in two days to advance is an unenviable position, but Irwin made it where a plan could at least be drawn up to succeed. He ate up the innings and kept all other available relievers in the dugout.

Yes, three more games, but the pitching unit is relatively fresh. Of course the key is that Scott Bittle hasn't even warmed up yet. His only time on the field was guarding the bullpen from foul balls the first two days. The electric closer has a rubber arm, and it is at full strength for the possible grind ahead.

But it stems farther than Bittle. Brett Bukvich and Cody Satterwhite are expected to be the next two starters in some order if Ole Miss plays both games Sunday. They are ready, along with Nathan Baker and Justin Cryer at 100 percent.

"That is the good thing about the two days here, we are in good shape on the mound," Mike Bianco said about his available pitchers. "Scott hasn't thrown yet, of course. We have gotten to see Missouri again, but we aren't ready to make a decision on the starter. But yeah, we are in good shape."

Rory McKean had Saturday off, and Jake Morgan threw just a dozen pitches. After two games, only Lance Lynn, Drew Pomeranz and probably Irwin are no-gos Sunday. Although Irwin wouldn't commit to that just yet. Understandable since he threw just 45 pitches (32 strikes) in the four innings.

"I haven't thrown much lately, so I might could go," Irwin said. "I'll see how it feels when I wake up in the morning.

"It is great because with the postseason, regional and hopefully super regional, I want to be out there. I would love to pitch in a big situation."

That feat has already been accomplished. Saturday's shutdown outing was big, but it won't be known for hours just how much it helped.

Either way, he made a difference. He gave the Rebels a little more of a fighting chance. Irwin saved the game.

And his performance will be a key reason if Ole Miss extends its season past Sunday.

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