The Journey

Phillip Irwin's journey hasn't always been easy, but the Memphis Christian Brothers High product has stayed the course. Now it appears he may get the chance to make a difference for the Ole Miss Rebels.

The fourth-year junior right-hander had arguably the best fall of the entire pitching staff. He's carried that over into the preseason, with his stats at the top of the staff.

How that will translate into a starting role, be it weekend or weekday, remains to be seen. But Irwin's drive to play a role on the pitching staff has been several years in the making. And he hopes now is his time.

"I'm just trying to get into the weekend rotation," he said. "I've been keeping the ball down well, locating my pitches, and getting outs mainly."

Certainly that gives any pitcher a shot to start, if he has talent, which Irwin does. He admits some of the improvement has also been mental.

"Just trying to make the next pitch," he said. "Relax and breathe out there. On a 3-2 count, not worrying about walking the guy, just trying to make that pitch."

At one time just making pitches wasn't easy for Irwin. He had surgery right before Christmas of his freshman year. He had hurt his arm that summer and tried to rehab it during his first fall in Oxford. But to no avail.

"It just never got any better," he said, "so I went ahead and had the surgery."

And now more than three years later?

"It's great," he said. "I don't have any problems with it."

His numbers and his performances last fall and this preseason have shown that. His latest solid outing was Sunday when he pitched three innings, gave up just two hits, struck out one and walked none, facing nine batters.

This actually all goes back further than last fall. A late-season Rebel win in 2008 in the Miami Regional gave him some confidence, and he talks about it still.

"I worked some things out right before we played Bethune-Cookman," said Irwin, speaking of the 14-1 win that pushed the Rebs to Sunday and an elimination game with Missouri, which they also won. Irwin, the third pitcher for the Rebs that day, went the final four innings, allowing no runs and just one hit with nine strikeouts.

"Some of it was mechanical. I just kept working bullpens and I had a whole lot of time to myself there for a while. I just kept working, and Coach (Carl) Lafferty helped me out. I was kind of leaning back and I tried to stay tall. Instead of the arm having to travel all this way, just staying right there. I got my arm up quicker and got the ball down."

All of which got his confidence up and his excitement level higher heading into the fall. With Lance Lynn and Cody Satterwhite gone, he knew at least two weekend spots were likely open. Somebody was going to fill them.

"It's pretty competitive out there," he said of the staff.

So he's worked hard to become one of the guys on the weekend. And he's gotten bigger and stronger than ever.

"I'm about 25 pounds heavier than I was last year," the 6-foot-3 Irwin said, now up to 227 pounds. "I feel real comfortable. Conditioning-wise it's probably not as good as it used to be. But as far as on the mound, I feel bigger, stronger, more comfortable."

Irwin said last summer he just decided to focus on it.

"I got on this workout craze," he said. "I really worked out a lot over the summer and over Christmas break. I just wanted to put on some weight and see if I could get my velocity up a little bit."

Which he has, even in the cold days of January and February.

"Once it warms up, I feel it will be back up there even more," he said. "In the fall I was touching 93. I was 89-91 usually."

He said it's all about keeping the ball down.

"At this level, especially with the metal bats, it's hard to beat anybody. You can pitch at the belt all day long, and a nine-hole guy can take it deep.

"I know all about that," Irwin said, smiling.

Now he wants to know about being a starter. Time will tell, but right now signs are positive that it could happen.

"It's been a long road and a rocky road, too," he said. "Tommy John, I don't wish that on anybody. Then I come back for a full season and I get beat up (on the mound). Maybe it's good for everybody to have that season where they get beat up a little bit. A little reality check to focus back in and push that much harder to get better."

For going on four years and through it all, that's what Phillip Irwin's done.

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