What having a 'healthy' Tim Elko means for Ole Miss baseball heading into postseason

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

OXFORD — There's an old saying in baseball that all it takes is one swing to change everything. Right now that's all Tim Elko has to give. And it might be all Ole Miss baseball needs from him.

Before Elko tore his ACL on April 5, he was clearly Ole Miss' best hitter. Heck, he was one of the best hitters in college baseball. He led the SEC in RBIs. The NCBWA named him the National Hitter of the Month for March. He was hitting .340 with nine home runs in 28 games. He had 15 hits and 10 RBIs in nine SEC games.

Of course, Elko's injury against North Alabama changed the course of Ole Miss' season. But it didn't exactly change the bottom line all that much. In the nine SEC games Elko played in pre-injury, Ole Miss scored 62 runs. In the nine that followed, Ole Miss also scored 62 runs. 

Now Elko is back in an extremely limited capacity. He's a power-hitting right-handed pinch hitter who will sub in for a left-hander like Ben Van Cleve or Calvin Harris or Hayden Leatherwood late in a game for one at-bat.

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THE IMPROBABLE:Can Ole Miss baseball slugger Tim Elko really return from a torn ACL in less than a month?

His pinch-hit home run in Saturday's win may be the defining highlight of the Ole Miss season. To be 33 days removed from tearing an ACL and still have the power to go opposite field against SEC pitching for a three-run blast is truly inspiring and unforgettable. 

It's also a glimpse into what Elko's value is.

Make no mistakes about it: Ole Miss' problem during its losing streak wasn't offense. Elko getting hurt didn't make the bullpen shaky or throw the Sunday starter situation into flux. With or without Elko, Ole Miss has a top-three offense in the SEC. There's enough of a sample size in both directions to say that pretty confidently.

But right now it's best to think of Elko as the baseball equivalent of a late-game sub in soccer. Ironic metaphor aside, Elko is this offense's fresh legs. All the other soccer players have to worry about conserving energy to last 90 minutes, but this guy off the bench can maximize his time by running free for 10 minutes and worry about nothing but trying to score a goal.

That's Elko. There are really only three ways Elko can contribute to this team right now.

  • One, he can reach base on a walk or hit-by-pitch. Then he'll be immediately subbed out in favor of a pinch runner. 
  • Two, he can single. If there are runners on base, he might drive them in. If there aren't, it's as good as a walk. Elko isn't getting to second base on his knee unless the defense opts for the rare seven-outfielder approach.
  • Three, he can hit a home run and trot his way home. 

The Elko who legged out seven doubles and fought down the line for infield singles is done. As is the Elko who fielded third base impressively. His knee is healthy enough to swing and run straight, but playing on a torn ACL severely limits how much a player can move laterally and change direction.

This effectively reduces Elko to a break-in-case-of-emergency option when the offense needs a big swing. It would be insane to expect him to hit a home run every time. It'd be insane to expect him to get a hit every time. But he showed this weekend that he still has the raw power and timing to change games and pitchers have to respect that.

As Ole Miss heads into the postseason, Elko represents a rare weapon in college baseball. He's the best hitter in a lineup that has proven it can produce without him. He's the baseball equivalent of a cherry on top of a sundae. 

Ole Miss can score runs without Elko. If he only gets one chance to produce per game, Ole Miss won't always need him to come through. But any time he does, he'll put a stamp on the game like only the SEC's best hitters can.

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.