In a stretch that would have seen many teams across the country emerge winless, Mississippi State baseball came out of a grueling seven-game run of non-conference play with a 5-1-1 record, adding to an overall record of 12-3-1. Facing, in succession, UCLA, USC, Oklahoma, South Alabama and three games against top-10 Oregon, the Bulldogs showed those around the country what their new-look roster can do.
Particularly impressive was the sweep of Oregon in Starkville, as the Ducks entered the weekend with a No. 9 ranking and a pitching staff considered to be the best in the country. Against that vaunted group, MSU amassed 24 runs and 33 hits, scoring in bunches throughout the weekend.
“Our hitters went out this summer and worked really hard,” junior pitcher Austin Sexton said. “Top to bottom, every guy that steps up to the batter’s box, you think they’re gonna get a hit.”
By comparison, MSU’s pitching staff only gave up nine total runs to the Ducks over the weekend while totaling 32 strikeouts in three games, led by junior pitcher Austin Sexton and his 12 strikeouts in game two.
“It’s huge,” junior and captain Jacob Robson said of the sweep over the Ducks. “Our confidence hasn’t wavered at all this season, but I think it’s even increased after this series.”
In particular, the weekend sweep showed how dangerous MSU can be when its offense and starting pitchers both play at the level they’re capable of. While the staff had more walks than coaches would have liked, the high number of strikeouts helped move the game along quickly, allowing the Bulldog offense to stay in rhythm, while also frustrating the Duck batters.
Even as good State’s starting pitchers were, head coach John Cohen still thinks they haven’t yet shown their best.
“I know how good our starting arms can be,” Cohen said Sunday following the sweep and the quality start by junior Daniel Brown. “Even as good as Daniel was today, he’s better than what he showed today. He has better command than that. I’ve seen him just top shelf, and he’s striving to get there. Today was a really good sign for him … I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Dakota Hudson yet. I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Austin Sexton yet.”
If their best is better than what they’ve shown, their best is, apparently, pretty darn good.
However, at the plate, at least a few players seem to be playing at peak levels every outing already, and perhaps no one is hotter than junior Brent Rooker. The talented hitter was named the SEC Player of the Week this Monday after batting .583 in MSU’s four-game home stretch last week, including a 1.167 slugging percentage.
The first MSU player to win the award since Nick Ammirati in 2013, Rooker has been on fire all season. Batting .377, he leads MSU with 20 RBI so far in 2016. Rooker has racked up 10 runs scored, six doubles, five walks, two stolen bases and a triple this season as he’s led a potent State offense.
This weekend, he credited MSU’s aggression at the plate, their approach to each pitcher and their patience to swing at strikes and hold tight for balls as reasons for the offensive success against what was a talented staff full of highly-rated pitchers.
“It’s a big confidence booster going into the competition we know we’re going to face in the conference,” Rooker said. “Those are the kind of arms we’re going to see in the SEC every weekend. It’s frontline guys like that who have gone in the first round before, guys who are going to go in the top five rounds this year, guys that have really good pro careers ahead of them … We’ve got really good guys in our lineup who love to compete with guys like that. That’s what we did this weekend.”
Going forward, the overall performance is one MSU can certainly build on, starting this week with home games against Eastern Kentucky and Oral Roberts followed by a trip to Vanderbilt to open SEC play. Luckily for MSU, as SEC play begins, Cohen believes his team has started to find its identity.
“I think so,” he said. “We have a lot of moving parts. We have a lot of people whoa are doing a lot of things for us. Certainly, that’s part of being on a team. When your name is called, you have to be ready for that opportunity. I feel like our kids are.”
Most importantly, as Rooker sees it, they’re having fun. He believes the trip to Los Angeles went a long way into solidifying the team’s chemistry, and their performance the last two weeks has been evidence of his belief.
“The looseness and how much fun we’re having playing the game right now is what’s propelling us,” Rooker said Sunday. “The feel of this team is unbelievable. Locker room camaraderie, locker room chemistry, it’s unbelievable. Everybody’s having fun. Everybody’s building off each other. Liking being around each other is a huge part of a team, because you’re around each other so much.”