Rebels’ Gatlin honors grandma with CWS game-winner over Texas Tech

OMAHA, Neb. — Marion Tenkhoff, smile on.

The grandmother of Ole Miss senior infielder John Gatlin wasn’t able to see his game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the 9th Tuesday. She wasn’t able to see the 2-1 win against Texas Tech in the College World Series.

At least not from TD Ameritrade Park.

Tenkhoff died Monday back in Tupelo, Miss., where Gatlin played his high school ball for the Tupelo Golden Wave.

She was keeping up, though. Gatlin’s parents found evidence of that.

"She had been cutting out clippings this season from me in the paper," Gatlin said. "So yeah, she was definitely here with me."

Gatlin made sure Ole Miss is still here, too. The Rebels are making their first trip to Omaha since 1942. His single over a drawn-in, five-man infield booked hotel reservations for at least two more days.

Ole Miss will play Thursday against the loser of Tuesday’s TCU-Virginia game (winner’s bracket).

An unexpected hero, Gatlin had 29 at-bats this season before Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco sent him to the biggest at-bat of his career, at the brink of elimination. The boy from the birthplace of Elvis Presley became the king of Ole Miss baseball in that moment, forever etching his name in its lore — the guy who gave the Rebels their first win in Omaha since 1969.

Gatlin had a game-winning hit in the 13th inning against UCF this season, the 10th outing of the season and nothing like this stage. He’s a clutch performer, though, regardless of the stage size.

He was a two-time all-state and all-division selection at Itawamba Community College, where he hit .354 and was all-region in 2011, as well an an Academic All-American. Gatlin says he’s still thankful to Itawamba coaches for "throwing him a bone out of high school and giving him an opportunity."

Opportunity knocked on Tuesday, with Gatlin entering the game amid myriad of changes in the ninth inning. With one out, Colby Bortles walked and pinch-hitter Brantley Bell reached on an error that should have been a double play off a comebacker to the mound.

Instead, Texas Tech pitcher Cameron Smith threw the ball into center field and Bortles went to third.

In comes Gatlin to face Dominic Moreno. The single to right off a 1-2 pitch scored Aaron Greenwood, a pinch-running pitcher.

Gatlin made the most of the opportunity, just as he did in junior college and just as he’s done despite a tough road in Oxford. He has had three surgeries at Ole Miss — all in one year. He had left labrum surgery and broke his foot during the rehab for that.

Some five months after foot surgery put a screw in, the screw broke and had to be replaced. After starting 13 of the 28 games he played in 2012 — Gatlin hit .255 with eight RBIs — 2013 was a wash.

This season, Gatlin hadn’t hit since May 13 and had only five RBIs. The No. 6 hit was pretty big for the player who makes good on his limited playing time.

"We’re so good and so talented. We contribute in so many different ways," Gatlin said. "whether it be off the bench, as a leader, a vocal guy and that’s kind of what my role’s been this year, and I’ve embraced it and enjoyed it and we’re here now. So that’s all that matters."

Gatlin’s parents never made the 700-plus mile trip to Nebraska. They were home, close to Marion. Gatlin was given the chance to go home, as well.

"Coach (Cliff) Godwin asked me when I told him, if I needed to go home," Gatlin said. "And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? She’d kill me if I came home right now.’ But yeah, with the game on the line like that and so much going through your head and she was definitely a part of it.

"Obviously, I stayed and she’s got to be very proud."

Proud of a guy who embraced a chance after high school, embraced an unfair share of rehabs and embraced any role he has been given at Ole Miss. It’s a busy time for the Gatlin bunch. Older brother Ben is getting married on Saturday. John is supposed to be in it. He would love to be there, but he’d also love to still be here.

Whatever the next few days bring, he’ll make the most of it. That’s John Gatlin.

"I’m either gonna watch it via Skype, or something," Gatlin said. "We’re going to cross that bridge when we get there. Still not here yet."

He said Tenkhoff, who got to see him play a few times in 2012, was here. In one of the biggest moments in Ole Miss baseball history, like everyone else, she probably had a hard time seeing him at the bottom of that big, happy celebratory pile.

"I wouldn’t think of anything else that she could be more proud of," Gatlin said.