Ole Miss freshman Hunter Elliott refuses to get caught up in the magnitude of the moment

·3 min read

May 18—The 60 1/2 feet from pitcher's mound to home plate can be a real chess match sometimes.

It seems odd that the winning strategy would involve trashing a lifetime of baseball lessons and experiences.

But it's worked for Hunter Elliott.

A year ago, Elliott was winning the chess match for Tupelo High School as the Daily Journal's baseball player of the year.

Now he's throwing some of the most important innings for Ole Miss all season as the Rebels try to rally from a difficult first half and earn an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

There are high stakes every time Elliott throws to the plate.

"You don't really think about the magnitude of the games. You can't let the spot get too big. You don't have any head space to think about anything else or how big the games are," he said.

In February, Elliott was one of a handful of pitchers competing for a spot in the SEC rotation.

Ultimately he didn't fill one of those spots at the beginning of the season, nor was he an afterthought.

He pitched from the bullpen on weekends and struck out nine in his first college start against Louisiana-Monroe on March 1.

He joined the SEC rotation at Kentucky in Week 3 of the league schedule and has remained except for the South Carolina weekend.

By late April he was becoming more efficient with his pitch count and getting deeper into games.

Pitching coach Carl Lafferty has been working with Elliott — who commands a fastball and change-up — to strengthen his breaking pitches, particularly the slider.

Elliott estimates his slider or curve are now called 15-20 times a game.

The confidence the staff has shown in Elliott has helped him trust himself.

"I've gotten more comfortable pitching ... pitching in front of big crowds, pitching in the SEC. I've figured out that my stuff's good enough, and I just have to attack the zone and attack the hitters. A lot of times they'll get themselves out," he said.

Elliott gave the Rebels a chance at Arkansas as he scattered three runs over six innings.

He went seven innings against Missouri, 6 2-3 innings at LSU.

He's been the SEC's co-freshman of the week the last two weeks.

Elliott cites no single inning or game as the launching point for his current hot streak.

It's about making the best possible pitch each time, staying with what you know.

He feels the same way about the Rebels' overall play compared to earlier in the season.

"Nothing necessarily went wrong. We lost a lot of close games," Elliott said. "We weren't making the big pitches, weren't having the big at-bats. Recently we've played very similar baseball. The team hasn't changed, our talent hasn't changed. We've just stuck with it and are playing well."

The Rebels have 13 SEC wins as Texas A&M comes to town for the final league series starting Thursday. Two wins would go a long way in helping Ole Miss reach the NCAAs.

Every pitch Elliott throws will be a big one.

That can really weigh on a freshman if he thinks about it.

"We just have to continue playing how we are, playing hard, and I think the chips will fall," he said.

PARRISH ALFORD is the college sports editor and columnist for the Daily Journal. Contact him at parrish.alford@journalinc.com.