After winning the first two games of the College World Series, Mississippi State had a three-day break before playing again Friday afternoon.
Many of the Bulldogs got rest, having time to relax and recover from the previous month of non-stop baseball.
Hunter Renfroe chose to unwind by working on one of his hobbies.
Hitting baseballs. Really, really hard. And very, very far.
On Wednesday morning, taking up residence on Creighton’s baseball field in downtown Omaha, MSU was doing some batting practice. With two more days until playing again – and a trip to the zoo later that afternoon – the mood was exactly as you’d expect for a team featuring facial hair and The Bench Mobb (second B is silent).
Then Renfroe, the first round draft pick, stepped up to the plate for his turn.
Crack. Home run.
He smiled and got a bit of applause.
Next pitch. Another loud crack, another home run.
Hey, alright, two in a row.
Crack. Home run.
Renfroe’s smile grew even bigger, while the mild applause from teammates had turned to whooping, enjoying the show their right fielder was putting on.
One more crack.
A fourth-straight home run.
At this point, even Renfroe started laughing, his teammates running around the field, cracking up, cheering and shaking their heads in awe.
A bit later in practice, they said, “One more Renfroe.”
The pitch came, the bat swung, and the ball flew far out of the park on command.
On Thursday, Renfroe hit one so far in practice that Luis Pollorena had to traverse two city blocks to find it at its final resting place.
On Friday, Renfroe stepped up to the plate for the final batting practice session before their game against Oregon State. But this time it was in TD Ameritrade Park, a much larger facility than Creighton’s home.
Swing, out at warning track. Another hit, dead at the dirt. One more, and again another falling just short of over-the-fence glory.
It seemed Renfroe’s magic may have been gone.
Then, the bat cracked again and the ball flew far down the left field line. The whole team stopped to watch as Renfroe’s ball sailed over the fence and into the bullpen in the outfield.
Home run. It could be done.
Fast-forward to the fifth inning that afternoon, and the Bulldogs held a slim 1-0 lead over the Beavers.
“We knew they were gonna score eventually, at some point,” head coach John Cohen said. “They’re too good of a ball club not to.”
After the first two batters exited by ground outs, Adam Frazier and Alex Detz, as they had done so many times before, got on base.
Then, Renfroe stepped up to the plate, two outs and a big opportunity on the field.
Watching from the dugout, Wes Rea had flashbacks to MSU’s Super Regional in Virginia when he hit a home run of his own. As it turns out, and without Rea knowing, pitching coach Butch Thompson had turned to the team and called Rea’s home run in Charlottesville just before he hit it.
“He told them it was gonna happen,” Rea recalled. “The same thing happened [against OSU Friday]. I told the whole dugout he was about to hit one a long way. Coach Thompson said the same thing.”
“And it happened,” Rea said, reliving Renfroe’s home run in his head. “That was kinda crazy. Things have been falling our way lately.”
“I was looking for a fastball up in the zone where I could drive it,” Renfroe said, “and I wasn’t gonna take it until I had that. He ended up laying a slider up in the zone and I got a barrel on it.”
But when Renfroe hit it, he didn’t think it was gone. It’s near-impossible to hit a homer in this park, Renfroe knew.
“I was kind of running for a double,” he said. “I hit it a little off the end of the bat, really.”
But as Renfroe approached second base, for the double he thought he had, he saw the leftfielder come back to the ground with an empty glove as the ball sailed into MSU’s bullpen behind the fence, the exact place he had finally sent it in his final batting practice.
Renfroe rounded the corner with his face changing from focused energy to giddy passion. Approaching third with the same smile on his face he had during batting practice days before, Renfroe whooped just like his teammates. He looked into the dugout as he turned to third, then above at the Maroon and White sea behind them and raised his hand to his helmet, emphatically saluting those who cheered him on.
“It was for the fans up there,” he said. “They’ve been behind us 100 percent the whole time we’ve been playing. You can’t ask for any more than them coming here and being a part of this. I’m sure they were just as excited as us. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more when we play next.”
“I think that was the biggest fist-pump I’ve given all year,” starting pitcher Kendall Graveman said. “I didn’t think it was getting out, either, I was on the same page as Hunter. I thought it was just getting over his head. For it to leave the ballpark; I hadn’t really shown emotion up to that point in the game. That was the first sign of emotion I’d shown.”
In the bullpen, sophomore Ross Mitchell watched as the game-changing moment unfurled.
“When he hit that, I was like, ‘It’s not gonna be a home run.’ The wind was blowing everything down,” Mitchell recalled knowledgably. “But I kept looking and I was like, ‘Ohhh, well,’ and we just started going nuts in the bullpen. It just shows how good a hitter he is and how quick his hands are.”
“That was a big moment in the game,” Mitchell continued. “It gave us a four-run lead and really helped us settle down and control the ballgame.”
Winning what amounted to a semi-final for the National Championship, the win may have been the biggest game in program history, perhaps even in MSU’s 100-plus years playing sports.
And Renfroe’s home run, the one he never thought he could get it, was the hit that won it.
“Our kids just believe that something good is gonna happen,” Cohen said after the game. “And it has.”