By John Davis, Sports Editor
It was a great first weekend for Ole Miss sophomore infielder Tate Blackman. It was the kind of weekend that players dream about.<>
Six hits, one home run, two doubles, six RBIs. What’s not to like? The stats were really significant since 1) the Rebels earned a sweep of Florida International and 2) Blackman struggled to make much of a contribution last year.
“It’s a long journey from last year until now. It’s a whole new approach, a whole new mindset at the plate,” said Blackman, who did appear in 39 games in 2015 but only hit .197. “Really, I’ve just worked on squaring balls up and having a good, quality at bat. It was a great start. It helps me get rolling this year and hopefully it will keep rolling from here on out.”
The native of Altamonte Springs, Florida came to Oxford with high expectations. He was an elite-level recruit and drafted in the 20th round of the 2014 Major League Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. Blackman was considered to be the top freshman, or one of them in 2015, and that just didn’t happen.
“There is no sugarcoating it that it was a bad year last year. I had all these expectations and living up to them as a freshman was definitely hard and something I guess I had to learn from,” he said. “Just handling failure last year, I think that got me to where I’m at now. I really understand that college baseball isn’t a sprint like high school baseball. You don’t play 25 games, you play 58 plus. It’s definitely a marathon. If you go 0-for-20, the next 20 at bats you can go 10-for-20 and it be a different season.”
Blackman added that he “100 percent” pressed last season to make plays, which is never a good thing in the game of baseball.
“I was doing things that I wasn’t capable of doing like going up to the plate. Hitting a home run every at bat, I can’t do that. Hitting a double every at bat, I can’t do that,” he said. “Getting a base hit every at bat, I can’t do that. What I can control is the pitches I swing at. If I’m getting too big with hitting balls out or doubles, then the strikeouts are going to come and it’s a snowball affect on your performance.”
Ole Miss coaches have stressed quality at bats to the Rebels this offseason, and Blackman said that a player can strikeout, as long as they really work the pitcher, making him throw a lot of pitches.
“If you work 10 pitches, that’s still a quality at bat because you made that pitcher work. So working the count and having hitter’s counts and hitting the ball hard, you’re going to get quality at bats,” Blackman said. “Our goal is to not be an easy out. If we’re going to get out, we’re going to make them rush to first or make the pitcher throw more than three pitches. We want to make it a grinding at bat when we’re at the plate, that’s for sure.”
This past summer, Blackman played in the prestigious, and competitive, Cape Cod League. Playing against the best, even after the season he had, gave Blackman new life on the diamond.
“The coaches up there new the type of player that I was and the type of performance that I had last year. They just said ‘Hey, have fun here and get back to the game you used to play you used to play when you were 4,’” Blackman said. “This is a loving game and one that I had been playing since I was 4 and they wanted me to get back to the Tate that loved hitting off the tee for coach pitch. They wanted me to have fun again.”
And Blackman had a lot of fun circling the bases as the Rebels won games. There were smiles all around, he said, especially for the sweep.
“We didn’t have a sweep at all until Mississippi State and now we open up the season with a sweep,” he said. “We got good pitching and we got ready to swing. We had good defense, it was just an all-around good weekend.”
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco knows how good it felt for Blackman to have the success he had coming off the year he did. He knew that the expectations for him to do that from the beginning was on him before he even took a swing in Oxford.
“He’s a really good player but this is a very humbling league. This is a humbling game. It’s tough. The one thing I keep saying about Tate is it’s never changed his work ethic,” Bianco said. “It never changed his positive energy. He’s always had a smile on his face. Last year had to be tough to go through that. He hasn’t shied away from it. Last year it looked like he was going to be starting second baseman from day one. He was just terrific this past weekend.”
Bianco added that Blackman had a really good fall and an even better first three weeks of the spring practice season.
“I’m proud of him and something I’m happy for him,” Bianco said.
Ole Miss, which moved up to No. 21 in the Baseball America Top 25 poll, is back in action this weekend against Louisville, which is ranked No. 2 in the D-1 Baseball Top 25 poll. Blackman said he was looking to the series, but that it all revolved around ‘pitch by pitch” and “game by game” in regards to playing the Cardinals.
“We want to minimize the mistakes and not give them too many outs,” he said. “We worry about Friday and then each pitch. Coach B always preaches that the game is won and lost on five pitches. We don’t know which ones that’s going to be. We try play every pitch hard and not give up pitches or at bats. If we just stick with our game plan and really focus pitch by pitch, it will be a fun series.”