(On Sunday night, Mississippi State played Central Arkansas with a chance to win the Starkville Regional. The Bulldogs lost, playing their worst game of the weekend, as players conceded they were on edge, not having fun as they usually do. On Monday night, in an elimination game with the season on the line, senior pitchers Kendall Graveman and Luis Pollorena carried sledgehammers with them in the dugout. MSU won the game handily and plays Virginia in the Charlottesville Super Regional beginning Saturday.)
“Sunday night,” Graveman recalled on Wednesday, “it was a weird feeling. That’s not who we were. We kind of played tense. The dugout didn’t feel relaxed. We got down and there was just a bad feeling in the dugout.”
“The moment you’re uptight and tense is when everything goes bad for you,” junior first baseman Wes Rea agreed. “We had the talk Monday and understood that it was win or go home, but we knew you weren’t gonna play your best if you played like that was the case. We had a team meeting before the game to say, ‘Look, this is what’s on the line, but we’ve gotta go out there and have fun at the same time.’ I think people did that.”
“That’s what baseball is,” junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe extrapolated. “It’s a kids sport. You’re a big kid playing a game. If you’re not having fun doing something, then it’s not worth doing. If you’re having fun, you’re gonna be doing great. It doesn’t matter if you’re striking out. If you’re having fun doing it, you’re gonna do a lot of things right.”
“The sledgehammer,” Graveman explained, “represents what we did in the fall. That was our whole deal. We worked so hard to get to this point. Every week in the fall, we’d give out a sledgehammer to the person that worked hardest that week and put forth the most effort. To win, that was something that was special in the fall. “
“We work our butts off,” junior outfielder Demarcus Henderson deadpanned. “It’s an honor to get, because you really have to work hard. Our workouts are not the easiest. Our workouts are to the point you really wanna give up halfway through.
“You look at that sledgehammer and you just automatically think about what we went through in the fall,” he continued, “the competitions we went through, the blood, sweat and tears every day running. Those were no easy tasks.
“You think, ‘if I can get through that, I can do this.’”
Sophomore closer Jonathan Holder added, “It kind of just rings a bell, saying, ‘If you earned this in the fall, you didn’t just get it. You had to work hard to get it. None of these games are gonna come easy. You have to work hard.’”
“When you come to the end of something,” Rea considered, recalling the season-on-the-line feeling Monday night, “you always think about what you worked at to get where you are. That’s just a symbol of reminding us of all the work we’ve gone through, how long this process has been, to remind you that you don’t want it to be over.”
“Once we’re relaxed and we’re goofing off in the locker room, it’s hard to beat us,” Henderson conceded. “We’re goofing off, we’re having fun and just joking around, we’re one of the hardest teams to beat.”
“We like to get crazy,” Holder echoed, “have some fun.”
“We got [sophomore pitcher] Ross Mitchell in our arms and threw him out of the dugout before the game,” Holder recalled with a guilty smile. “It’s just something we came up with at the beginning of the year, and it eventually got bigger and bigger to where we’re walking around everywhere yelling and screaming. I don’t know if other teams watch it, but if I see people in the other dugout hollerin’ and screaming like that, I’d probably wonder what they’re doing.”
“That’s the strength of our team, I’d say,” junior outfielder C.T. Bradford added. “We have a bunch of just good guys. They do a good job of keeping everyone in it and keeping everyone loose and not pressing when things get tough, which we could’ve done very easily on Monday. If you were in that dugout or locker room, you wouldn’t even know that our season could’ve ended in a couple hours.”
“When we play relaxed, we play the best,” Holder said simply, finalizing his thoughts on the reappearance of the sledgehammers.
“It brought us back to the fall,” Renfroe said, “and how hard we worked for it and how much it meant to us and how much fun we have.”
“For us to bring back those memories of how hard we worked was something that we really wanted to hold on to,” Graveman concluded. “I’m pretty sure they’ll be making the trip to Virginia.”