Closing Time

Senior Scott Bittle prepares for Opening Day in different circumstances than he anticipated. Read about it inside.

By now, any fan of Ole Miss baseball knows the story.

Selected 75th overall by the New York Yankees (his childhood team) in June, right-hander Scott Bittle returns to Ole Miss on terms no one could have anticipated.

The negotiations were tiresome, with the unknowns even more so, but finally No. 19 is back in Oxford to don the Red and Blue once again.

The journey has been long and winding to get Scott Bittle to Opening Day. He's been hounded by fans and media types countless times regarding his current circumstances, so the opportunity to take the field as a senior on the Ole Miss roster is a welcomed one.

"I'm really not trying to focus on that now," Bittle said of the failed negotiations with the Yankees. "My sole focus is on the season upcoming. It's in the past, and I can't do anything about it. There's no sense in dwelling on it."

However, it's safe to say Rebel skipper Mike Bianco is pleased to see his seasoned veteran return for one more year.

"He was disappointed that I don't get to live out a dream just yet," said Bittle. "Hopefully that will happen this year, but I'm not going to worry about that. I can't control it. I hope he was excited to have me back. I like to think that."

Having been selected by many preseason publications for various awards and watch lists, he can now shift to life as a Rebel once more.

He's certainly gained notoriety for his terror of a season in 2008, after leading the nation in strikeouts per 9.0 innings pitched and tallying 130 strikeouts on the year.

The 130 strikeouts are third all-time on the single season list behind Lance Lynn and Will Kline, who set the top two marks during the 2007 season.

Bittle also led the Southeastern Conference in strikeouts during the regular season, earning All-SEC Second Team honors as he also was named a semi-finalist for the Clemens Award and the Stopper of the Year as a junior.

When asked to compare those numbers to that of a hitter, fellow senior Logan Power had trouble putting those feats into words.

"That's a tough question. I don't know, .475, with 30 homeruns or something like that? I don't know how he does it," said Power. "He's pretty gifted both mentally and physically. He's a great player."

Selected by the Padres in the 25th round, Power had a difficult decision to make himself, in whether to return to school or chase the lifelong dream of playing in the Majors.

Still, the talented left fielder couldn't imagine the difficulties Bittle experienced once his negotiations fell through.

"I talked to him afterwards," Power explained. "When he said the deal fell through, I was excited he was coming back, but I really can't imagine how he felt. I mean, it was a tough decision for me, but standing here now, I'm so glad I came back. Talking to him now, he seems happy. He's found a home here and has done well."

Cody Overbeck, who is practicing in Oxford for his upcoming trip back to the Minors for the Philadelphia Phillies, believes the Yankees made a mistake in not coming to terms with Bittle.

"I talked to him a little bit, because I was in Tampa, and he was supposed to be there too," Overbeck said. "It's always surprising when they can't work something out. You always feel bad for him. But he's back here now and it's not that bad. I wish he could have got that done though.

"(The Yankees) absolutely made a mistake," Overbeck concluded.

When looking at the numbers, one would have to agree.

Bittle posted a 7-1 mark on the season, picking up wins in relief over Mississippi State, No. 6 Vanderbilt, at No. 8 Georgia, Auburn, at No. 20 Kentucky and against No. 12 Missouri to send the Rebels to the NCAA Coral Gables Regional Championship game.

In the win over Missouri, Bittle struck out a career-high 12 batters in 4.1 innings pitched and accounted for all 13 outs in his time on the mound.

He also posted eight saves on the season, including preserving Rebel victories over Southern Miss, LSU, at No. 10 South Carolina, Arkansas and No. 6 Georgia in the SEC Tournament.

Combine those stats with the many other talented arms Ole Miss has to offer, and it should come as no surprise that Bittle is excited when considering the prospects of this season.

"I think it's the best in the country," Bittle said of the Rebel bullpen. "If you look at everyone else's bullpen, we have established guys back and guys like (David) Goforth who throws in the mid-90s. He's going to help."

But the bullpen is lead by Bittle, who throws a devastating fastball/cutter, referred to by teammates and coaches alike as the "Thing".

It's been described as unhittable by many and, according to Power, is what makes the talented pitcher so hard to face.

"I actually faced him a couple of days ago," said Power. "I remember, every pitch he threw at me, I had no shot. I was trying to take a pitch, to see what he had, and he threw a cutter right down the middle. Then he threw one away and I just swung at it. I had no shot. Then he threw a fastball in and I took it and just sat down. It was over for me right before I stepped in the box."

Some have questioned why Scott isn't starting in any of the three weekend spots, but the senior is accustomed to his role and agrees he is better served in relief appearances.

"Really, I didn't feel comfortable until last year (in coming out of the bullpen)," Bittle said. "I figured out what I needed to do to get myself mentally prepared. The year before, it was a new experience. I had some success early and some failures that I had never related to before. It's an on-going process right now."

As the Rebels head to Mobile for the start of the regular season, a few familiar names ride along, with none bigger than Scott Bittle.

While expectations will certainly be high in his first appearance, the talented veteran refuses to allow outside distractions to deter him from his goals.

"The only thing I can do is focus on my pitches," he said. "It definitely helps having Brett Basham back. He knows my gameplan and I know I can throw anywhere I want to and he's going to block it. It's great to have that guy behind the plate.

"If I only focus on my pitches, everything will take care of itself. "

Welcome back Scott.

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