Three weeks ago, before it started to seem like Thomas Dillard belts a home run every time he steps to the plate, he sat alone in a Georgia hotel room, looking dejected and feeling unsatisfied.
The first-year Oxford catcher/outfielder, who is committed to Ole Miss and has MLB scouts flocking to Chargers games, went 0 for 3 in a 4-1 win on March 10 against McEachern (Ga.) during the Perfect Game Showdown.
His batting average dropped to .269 (7 for 26).
Oxford coach Chris Baughman, while gathering dirty uniforms and clothes from the room that day, noticed Dillard’s demeanor.
The Clarion-Ledger Dandy Dozen selection was pressing — and it was written on his face.
He wanted to help lead his new high school team, he wanted to validate committing to Ole Miss and he wanted to impress MLB scouts, including a few who believe he will be the first high school player from Mississippi this year selected in June. Instead, Dillard disappointed himself.
“I saw it taking a toll on him,” Baughman said. “He was putting added pressure on himself.”
So Baughman offered a message.
“You are a kid one time in life and just play and enjoy it,” Baughman recalled telling Dillard. “You came here for a reason and that was to enjoy a ride. Ole Miss, a college career, the draft status, a MLB career … all of that is going to come because you are too good and work too hard. But don’t regret putting too much pressure on yourself and missing out on your senior year of high school.”
It was apparently all Dillard needed to hear. After that game, Dillard switched his batting stance slightly so that his hands were higher and started swinging at better pitches, but more importantly, he was freed to have fun.
And then dominate.
Since that game, Dillard, who moved from Memphis this summer to Oxford, where his two older sisters live, is 19 for 37 (.514) with seven home runs. Dillard is batting .413 with a .519 on-base percentage. He has nine homers, which is good for third in the nation — according to MaxPreps — and 26 RBIs.
Oxford, a favorite to win a state title, is now 15-5 heading into Tuesday’s game against visiting West Point.
Wait, there’s more.
Dillard has twice hit two home runs in the same game.
He belted one against Lafayette that Baughman estimates traveled 475 feet. Yes, really.
“I’m serious,” Baughman added. “It was the longest ball I’ve ever seen anyone hit in-person. It hit a tree that is 100 feet away from the wall.”
Dillard’s most recent blast, a laser last Tuesday against Saltillo, dented Oxford’s scoreboard in left-center.
“It was like watching a really good golfer tee off at a professional golf tournament,” Baughman said. “The ball exploded and then in mid-air it takes off. As soon as it got to the outfield, it started going up until it hit the scoreboard. He continuously amazes all of us.”
That includes professional scouts. One who was interviewed for this story said it’s too early to project where Dillard would be chosen, but the expectation is for it to be in the early rounds. That would leave Dillard with an interesting decision to make: Go to Ole Miss — where his grandfather, Wilson Dillard, played running back in the 1950s, and where a few of his high school teammates are also committed — or get a jumpstart on a potential professional career.
“Passing up college to go play in the MLB … that’s something that you can’t deny is a cool idea,” Dillard said. “But playing at Ole Miss has always been a dream of mine so we’ll have to see when we get there. It would be awesome to play four years at Ole Miss in front of the best fans ever.”
That decision, as Dillard has learned, can wait. For now, he’s too focused on having fun.