Resurgent Henry back on top for Rebs|[05/29/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jordan HenrySix weeks ago, Jordan Henry would’ve done just about anything for a few base hits. A line drive, a dinker, a squibber, anything.

He was stuck in the worst slump of his career, his playing time was dwindling, and there seemed to be no end in sight. The Ole Miss right fielder kept hearing words of encouragement from teammates and coaches, though, and kept working to make the most of his limited opportunities. The result was a turnaround that can only be described as remarkable.

Henry went 11-for-20 at the SEC Tournament, earning all-tournament team honors and helping the Rebels to the championship game. He’s hitting .357 in May – after posting a .245 average in the first 2 1/2 months of the season – and has reclaimed his starting spot in right field as the Rebels’ leadoff man heading into this weekend’s NCAA Regional in Miami.

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“I felt really good in Birmingham. I got some really good swings off, and got a few lucky chopper hits. When you get those, you start to feel a lot better,” said Henry, a former Vicksburg High star.

Henry won the SEC’s Freshman of the Year award in 2007 and hit safely in 15 of the first 18 games this spring. In mid-March, however, the bottom fell out. Henry went into a 4-for-33 tailspin over a 23-game stretch. The slump cost him his starting job and limited him to appearances as a late-inning defensive substitute or pinch-runner.

He finally returned to the starting lineup in a midweek win over Arkansas State on April 23 and went 2-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored. He hit safely in 11 of Ole Miss’ last 15 games, and started all but two of those. He’s hitting .368 since returning to the starting lineup, and .357 since he went back to the leadoff spot on May 2 against Georgia.

In the SEC Tournament, he hit .550, scored four runs and drove in two. His 4-for-5 performance last Saturday against Vanderbilt helped the Rebels to an 8-7 win and a berth in the title game, where they lost to LSU. Henry went 1-for-4 in that 8-2 loss, scoring one of Ole Miss’ runs and recording seven putouts in right field.

“It was a patience thing. Every time I got a chance to go out and play I had to make the most of it. I got a few at-bats here and there, had good opportunities and stuck with that,” Henry said. “Playing small roles to help the team win helped a lot.”

Just as Henry broke out of his slump, the Rebels appear to be breaking out of theirs. Ole Miss (37-24) had a three-game lead in the SEC West after taking two of three from LSU April 11-13, then went 6-9 in the second half of the SEC schedule and had to scramble to make the league tournament as the eighth and final seed. Now, it heads to a stacked Coral Gables regional that includes one of the nation’s top pitchers in Hirom Burgos of Bethune-Cookman (9-1, 1.20 ERA that is the best in the country), the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament in Miami (47-8), and an experienced and talented first-round opponent in Missouri (38-19).

Missouri has two standout pitchers in Aaron Crow and Kyle Gibson. Crow is 12-0, with a 2.56 ERA and 117 strikeouts, while Gibson is 9-2, with a 3.40 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 84 2 /3 innings. Beyond those two, the rest of the Tigers’ staff is just 17-17, and only one other pitcher has an ERA under 4.00.

Ole Miss will counter with Lance Lynn (7-3, 4.21 ERA) on Friday. Lynn had 12 strikeouts in the SEC Tournament opener against Georgia last Wednesday.