March 22, 2013
by Bill Bunting
OXFORD, Miss. – In childhood, most athletes have the course of their life and career all planned out.
It will start with being the star of their high school team, leading to a scholarship to college where they will continue to excel. In turn, that excellence on the collegiate level results in being drafted and becoming the next big thing in the professional ranks.
That’s how it’s supposed to go.
For some, the plan will be executed to perfection through a little luck and unbelievable preparation. For others, it will never materialize. And for some, the plan will hit some snags, require some detours and take a course that deviates far from the plan.
Baseball senior Tanner Bailey has been one of the latter, but so far the right-hander from Little Rock, Ark., has continued to press on and work to make his dream come true – despite hitting some major obstacles along the way.
“Tanner has been so resilient and relentless in his approach with everything he does,” said junior Bobby Wahl, the Friday night starter and ace of the Rebel pitching staff. “Hard work has paid off for him. He never takes a second off, and that’s a big part of why he’s been successful. I can’t think of anyone who deserves every bit of success that comes his way.
“He worked hard every day to come back from injury and never took a day off or felt sorry for himself,” Wahl continued. “He’s worked continuously and been a spark plug for us no matter the situation. We have really benefitted from having him in the bullpen at the end of games this season.”
But it would have been easy for Bailey to hang it up and never have been in the Ole Miss bullpen. The injury alluded to by Wahl was singular, but for Bailey it’s been injuries.
Bailey was recruited by the Rebels out of Little Rock Christian Academy and things looked to be taking off toward the grand plan for the right-hander. But his junior season, he was bitten by the injury bug at a pitching camp and faced with a decision.
That decision led him to the junior college ranks instead of coming to Ole Miss to be a part of the Rebel program. Bailey would have been a freshman in 2009 and a part of a squad that claimed the Southeastern Conference championship and came within a game of a College World Series appearance.
Instead of that experience, Bailey traveled south to Texarkana Junior College where he spent two years working to get back into the form that attracted the attention of Southeastern Conference schools like Ole Miss and Arkansas.
In his two seasons at Texarkana, Bailey helped lead the Bulldogs to a pair of conference titles and was twice named an All-Conference selection for his efforts. He posted a 15-6 record over the course of his two years with a 3.50 ERA and posted 138 strikeouts with only 41 walks through his 23 outings.
Everything was cruising and Bailey had again attracted the attention of Ole Miss two years later.
But right before the playoffs began during his second season, injury struck again. This time it was much more severe than in high school. Bailey had torn his rotator cuff and his labrum and was going to require surgery. Things were once again in limbo about his future and the plan had hit another crossroads.
The coaching staff at Ole Miss, however, still believed that with work and rehab, the right-hander could find a role with the Rebels. They told him to come on to Ole Miss and see how things developed.
Bailey came to Ole Miss with the plan in place to redshirt and rehab following surgery with Dr. James Andrews out of Birmingham, Ala.
“Dealing with the injuries I’ve dealt with, I know I can get through anything,” Bailey said. “I’m grateful that Coach Mike Bianco and the coaching staff continued to believe in me and encourage me that I could still come to Ole Miss and be successful after such a big surgery.
“Redshirting that first year may have been the best thing I ever did, because it helped me realize that I could still play in the SEC even though I had been injured. I learned that it doesn’t matter how hard you throw or how good you are, because the teams in this league are good and you can still get hit. If you go out and compete, hit your spots and make your pitches, you can compete and still be successful in the toughest league in college baseball.”
Bailey spent the 2011 season on the bench and in the dugout trying to cheer on his teammates while working to build back his strength and rehab from the shoulder surgery. That year he watched the Rebels turn in a 30-25 record and miss the NCAA Tournament for one of only two times in the last 12 seasons.
When the 2012 season opened, the redshirt junior was ready to go to work and contribute, determined to help the team make it back to the NCAA Tournament and compete for titles.
It was an up-and-down season for Bailey, who struggled to find the rhythm and sustained success he had been used to when fully healthy. He made 17 appearances, including three starts, on the season as he floated through different roles trying to help the team in any way possible.
The clearest picture of his season probably came with two games played in one week’s time – a start at Memphis on April 24 and a start at Mississippi State that Sunday in the series finale.
In the start at Memphis, his first as a Rebel, Bailey held a no-hitter through four innings before coming out of the game as he was expected to be needed for the weekend series at the Rebels’ arch-rival that weekend. In the next outing at Mississippi State, things didn’t go quite as planned with Bailey allowing four runs and not recording an out before coming out of the game.
“That one week may have been the best and worst week of my college experience so far,” Bailey said with a wry smile.
By this point, he was used to things not going as planned. Undeterred, it simply meant this was one more time to buckle down and go back to work.
Fast forward to the 2013 season where Bailey is a year older and more experienced. He is now the savvy veteran instead of the player sidelined by injury and unable to actively help in a game.
He knows his role and it’s one he’s quite comfortable with – especially when taking into account the talent surrounding him in the bullpen and preceding him in the starting rotation.
“I know exactly what my role is and what I’m asked to do,” Bailey said of his senior campaign. “I know exactly when I’m coming in the game. I know that Brett Huber coming in behind me is going to get the job done, so I have to do my job before I hand the ball over to him. I know the guys ahead of me will have done their job before turning things over to me. It’s a great thing we’re doing out of the bullpen this year and a great group of guys to be pitching with this season.”
It’s a bullpen that has allowed only 10-of-48 inherited runners to score this season and has helped combine for three shutouts this year. The arms coming out of the pen have also combined for 95 strikeouts through 87.0 innings of work.
Thus far, Bailey still holds a perfect 0.00 ERA through 11 outings and 17.0 innings of work. The senior has picked up two saves – one against No. 12 TCU in the opening weekend and one against Southeastern Louisiana – while also picking up a win in relief against Lipscomb.
He’s walked only three batters while striking out 23 and allowed only seven hits.
“It’s been a long road for Tanner,” said Ole Miss pitching coach Carl Lafferty. “He was good off that first year of surgery, but I think this season we’re starting to see the real Tanner. He’s got full functionality back and feeling healthy. The fans are now getting to really see what he can do for us. He’s a veteran who has been in the league for three years and is a confident competitor. That’s big for the younger guys on the team and big for us as a whole.”
In his most recent outing, Bailey turned in one of his best outings to help the Rebels clinch a series win at No. 11 Arkansas. Against the Razorbacks, he worked a career-long 5.1 innings and struck out a career-high nine while not walking a batter. The performance helped give the Rebels the chance to rally and pick up the win in 13 innings.
“I just tried to keep my cool and tell myself to just make pitches,” Bailey said of the performance. “The coaches and Stuart (Turner) are going to call a great game. The defense behind me is going to make the plays we need. I just knew I had to do my part to hold things in check because the offense was going to come through. Jake Overbey and the guys up the middle made that so much easier, as did Will Jamison and the guys in our outfield that has so much speed. I knew I could just fill up the zone and they would make the plays we needed.”
Bailey and the Rebels are hoping to parlay performances like that into continued success on the path to a conference title and a College World Series berth. They’ll hope to keep moving toward that goal this weekend against Texas A&M.
But, Bailey knows it will require the one thing that he and the Rebels are no stranger to – an ability to adapt to the obstacles thrown in the planned path and continued hard work.
“We have to keep working hard and keep getting better,” Bailey said. “We have to keep making the plays defensively and come out as a pitching staff and keep filling up the strike zone. Bobby (Wahl), Mike (Mayers) and Sam (Smith) have been tremendous in the starting rotation, and getting Chris (Ellis) back will be even more of a boost to help those of us coming out of the bullpen.
“Our offense has been tremendous this year and definitely makes it easier on us as a pitching staff,” Bailey said. “The defense has made great plays all year and that takes pressure off us on the mound. If we continue to do all these things and support each other, we’ll do big things as a team.”