Sometimes the stories are hard to find. In other instances, the top performances are a bit more obvious.
“The star of the show tonight is Tatum,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said as soon as he walked up to the gathered reporters Sunday evening.
Vance “Moonlight” Tatum, to be more specific, was the subject of conversation, the burgeoning star of MSU’s pitching staff. The sophomore left-hander has been impressive each outing early on in the season, but his destructive display of force on the mound Sunday was as impressive as any of the best performances over recent years for the Bulldogs.
Tatum began the season in the bullpen, but after a strong first outing, he earned a role as a starter. Doing so Sunday, he struck out eight of the first 10 batters he faced. During one stretch, he retired 13-straight batters. He got his team to the ninth inning having only allowed one hit, and his pace of setting down batter-after-batter helped the game reach that point in barely two hours.
By the end of the night, MSU beat Samford 6-2 and Tatum had 12 strikeouts, two hits and two runs in eight-plus innings of work.
“I really had a good feeling at the beginning of the game,” Tatum said. “The last couple starts I’ve built up the endurance a little bit and finally had a good feel for all three of my pitches.”
Those three pitches: fastball, slider and the change-up he began using later in the game when Samford batters started thinking they had him figured out. More impressive than the assortment of pitches, according to Cohen, was how he used them. Sure, each is good, but even better is the placement. Part of what makes Tatum’s fastball so consistently hard to hit is that he can throw just about anywhere on the plate.
As Cohen told reporters after the game, a lefty who can get a fastball inside on right-handed batters is quite the weapon.
“When you can throw that fastball in on right handers and freeze right handers the way he was, I think that’s a difference maker. We’re really impressed with what he’s done and the progress he’s made.”
The question now is what to do with him. Put him on the mound, obviously, but as a starter or out of the bullpen? Tatum has had two starts in his three appearances, but that’s also been with MSU playing four games in a weekend.
Cohen conceded he’s got some difficult decisions to make, as the rest of the staff has been great, too, but he says it’s a good problem to have. Oddly enough, while Cohen didn’t expect it, it’s an issue Tatum had hoped he would be able to give coaches.
Back in the fall, each player was told to write down their goal for the 2015 season. Tatum’s? He wanted to be the Friday night starter for Mississippi State baseball.
Said Cohen, “We essentially told him before the year we wanted to start him in the bullpen and see what happens, and he has just made a statement. We love it when our players don’t make statements with their mouths, they make it with their performance, and he has certainly shown us in a starting role that he is up to that challenge.”
Whatever his role is, Tatum said he’ll be happy. He just wants to pitch. However, Friday night would be an appropriate time slot for the pitcher nicknamed “Moonlight.”
He earned the moniker back in high school, and in fact, it was one of his current teammates who gave it to him.
The week before joining Team Mississippi as a sophomore in high school, Tatum had one of the worst outings of his young career.
“I might have gotten out of the first inning,” he jokingly remembers.
The game in question began at 9 a.m., so the young pitcher decided it must have been the early time slot that messed with his game. When he got to Oklahoma to play for Mississippi in the Junior Sunbelt Classic, he told the team’s pitching coach that he only wanted to pitch at night.
“Whatever you do,” Tatum told his coach, “please don’t pitch me in the morning time.”
Shortly after arrival, Team Mississippi had one of those morning games Tatum was so eager to avoid. Taking Tatum’s request into account, the coaches put someone else on the mound, a right-handed junior named Myles Gentry – the same right-handed pitcher who is now a junior at MSU with Tatum.
It was that day when Gentry came up with the nickname he still hears almost every day.
“It was a real early game, 8 or 9 o’clock, and I ended up having to pitch,” Gentry said, “and I guess I was kind of salty about it because it was so early.”
“They didn’t really like me,” Tatum jokes now.
“Typical left-handed guy,” Gentry cracked about high school Tatum.
But the combination of creativity and bitterness turned into inspiration for Gentry.
“The nickname just came to me: Moonlight. He pitched that night and did real well, so we stuck with it,” Gentry recalls. “I started calling him that, and then everybody else went with it.”
At the same time, Twitter had just started to become a thing. Needing a handle for the new form of social media, Tatum went with his new nickname and styled himself @Moonlight_Tatum on Twitter, the name he still has today.
Of course, as Cohen has learned, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is now. Moonlight can pitch.