Sitting at an undefeated 7-0 but staring straight at a tied game and a possible first defeat, Mississippi State needed someone to step up on a frigid Sunday night against Alabama A&M. A veteran player, a team leader, someone.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, MSU got the performance it needed, but from a seemingly unlikely spot. True freshman Ryan Gridley stepped to the plate with a runner on base and calmly delivered the game-winning hit, an RBI single to knock in the go-ahead run, putting the Bulldogs up 2-1, the eventual final score.
To hear his coach talk, though, that wasn’t even the most impressive thing Gridley did. His defensive play at second base to end the top of that inning was even better.
“I didn’t think the play of the game was the hit he got,” John Cohen said. “I thought it was the line-drive laser he just sat on and let hit him right in the chest, calmly picks it up and throws it right to first base. I thought that was the play of the ball game. A lot of people don’t notice those things, but if you don’t get in front of that ball and it gets to the outfield somehow, it’s gonna change the nature of the ball game.”
Whichever is the play of the game, Gridley made them both and MSU emerged from its second week of play with an unblemished 8-0 record. Plenty has gone into that, but Gridley’s hot start has a lot to do with it. Having started six games and played in seven, the freshman infielder is batting .529, with a .640 on-base percentage. He’s got 10 runs, nine hits, eight RBI and seven walks to his name, as well.
And the thing of it is, he wasn’t even supposed to be playing. But after senior captain Wes Rea went down with an injury, the lineup had to be shuffled and Gridley stepped up at second base.
“Every time one door closes, another one opens,” Cohen said. “A lot of people have flown through those doors, and Gridley is one of them. He has taken advantage of that opportunity.”
He’s taken such an advantage that it might be hard to keep he and his skills out of the lineup down the road. As Cohen described him, he talked about a player who is able to slow down the big moments, slow his heart rate and focus on exactly what is happening and what he needs to do. Along with the mental focus comes a great deal of natural talent, too. Arm strength, speed, awareness – Cohen rattled off the highlights.
The most important thing, Cohen went on to say, is Gridley’s ability to take coaching and “not try to do to much,” which coaches observed is a rare quality in a freshman.
Perhaps his most exciting play of the weekend, Gridley’s inside-the-park home run on Saturday is a good example. When it happened, he really wasn’t aware of what was going on until he was already halfway to third base and saw the signal from assistant coach Nick Mingione that he better keep going.
Gridley walked reporters through the play on Sunday evening.
“Honestly, it was a bad swing by me to begin with,” he said. “No strikes, first pitch of the at-bat and I swung at a slider out of the zone. The coaches teach us to run everything out of the box, so I figured I’d better bust it. I was running and I never heard anyone say ‘out,’ so I was like, I might as well just keep running. Then I saw Coach Mingione pointing me home and I thought, it must be safe. I got really lucky.”
Both lucky and safe. Impressive, to boot. One of many impressive things he and his teammates have done early on, putting up big numbers at the plate. As a team, MSU leads the SEC in runs and on-base percentage, while tallying the second-highest number of hits, steals and RBI.
Those around the program expected the offensive to deliver in 2015, and so far, their predictions were right.
“We knew it,” Gridley said. “In the fall, you could see the hitters. There are so many different pieces of our offense. There’s speed, there’s power, there’s guys who can do it situationally. Every single piece you need is in our lineup.”
Gridley and teammates Seth Heck and Jacob Robson make up three of the top four hitters in the SEC through two weeks, both in batting average and on-base percentage. The hot bats have been coming top to bottom in the lineup, and MSU has done most of it without three of their best hitters. Rea, sophomore catcher Gavin Collins and junior outfielder Michael Smith are all on the mend from minor injuries. Add those three back into what’s already a potent offense…
“When those three guys come back,” Cohen said, “I think it changes the dynamics of our lineup.”
Then add to those hitters a slew of talented pitchers and big performances by many of them (including record numbers of strikeouts by some, and two saves in one day by senior Trevor Fitts) and Cohen has both a confident and dangerous group. Dangerous for the other teams, of course.
The ceiling? Gridley thought Sunday’s close win in below-freezing temperatures gave the answer.
“No untested team is gonna go out there and win the whole thing,” he said. “You’ve gotta battle to the very end. Those are the games that you know you have a tough team, you know you have a team that can take it all the way.”