Finishing his approach to first base, Brent Rooker’s eyes darted downward to make sure he stepped on the bag as he rounded first and continued what seemed like a fruitless jog to second base. The ball he had crushed to centerfield was, like so many before it, about to fall just short of its target, the gap between glory and defeat merely a few inches of leather glove.
The centerfielder for Southeast Missouri State had easily jogged back to the fence where his arm was outstretched and his gloved hand waited on the high-hit ball to fall into the sweet spot. In that moment, Rooker knew he had the same thing coming that had plagued him all year. To be sure, the junior outfielder has hit his fair share of home runs. But no one on this Mississippi State team has had as many robbed at the last second as Rooker.
The hit, he thought as he approached first base, was just like one he’d had against Texas A&M on Super Bulldog Weekend, the last time such a large crowd had come to watch he and his Bulldogs play. A high line drive to centerfield that weekend, with 15,000 watching, looked like it was going to leave the park. And most parks, it would have. But Dudy Noble isn’t most parks. With a light breeze blowing infield, that ball, too, fell just short. Robbed then, and robbed now, it appeared.
The gods of baseball, Rooker may have thought as he stepped on first, surely had something against him.
But then, he looked back up. In the same moment his eyes rose to the outfield, the volume around him rose, as well. The crowd was on their feet, cheers were carried to him from the stands and that ball, finally, mercifully, somehow, had landed among the grills and seats beyond the outfield fence in the Left Field Lounge.
The gods of baseball, it turns out, just have a keen sense of irony.
“I was pretty excited when I realized it was a home run,” Rooker told reporters after MSU’s 9-5 win over SEMO. “It was a big moment in the game. Any time you can come up with a big hit, it makes you happy.”
Of those nine runs MSU scored, Rooker was directly responsible for each one of the first four State recorded. When SEMO took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second, Rooker responded with his first home run in the bottom of the inning, cutting the lead in half. When the Redhawks extended the lead to 4-1 in the next inning and it appeared Rooker’s first longshot wasn’t enough, he hit another, his deep jack to centerfield with two on and two outs tying the game at 4-4.
Speedy centerfielders and finicky wind patterns be darned, Rooker was going to find a way to make sure his Bulldogs won.
“He just took great swings today when we really needed him the most,” head coach John Cohen said. “He’s got so much bat speed, it’s ridiculous.”
Indeed, MSU uses technology in practice that tracks bat speed, and Rooker regularly has balls coming off his barrel at 115 miles per hour. In other words, a Corvette couldn’t beat his home runs to the other side of the fence.
But back to the timely hitting, and really, the production of the whole lineup. Rooker took the headlines Friday as MSU won game one of the Starkville Regional, but spots 1-9 in the order are all deserving of praise. Jake Mangum, for one, who was constantly a nuisance to the Redhawks and a source of production for the Bulldogs. Or Jack Kruger, perhaps, the catcher who spent three hours doing squats behind the plate, only to pull off an impressive inside-the-park home run in MSU’s last at-bat in the bottom of the eighth. The two runs scored then gave Cohen’s club the insurance it needed.
“We got down early and they just never thought they were going to lose that game,” Cohen said.
When MSU was behind, it always found a way to bounce back, quite literally. Every single time SEMO scored, batting in the top of each inning, MSU responded with runs of their own in the bottom of those innings. SEMO scored twice in the second, MSU once. SEMO plated two more in the third, Rooker ensured that his Bulldogs plated three. When the Redhawks had one runner cross the plate in the sixth, State answered with three of their own. Those last two through Kruger in the eighth were just garnish for a little style and flair.
“We’ve done that all year,” Rooker said. “That’s one of our strengths as a team.”
Said SEMO coach Steve Bieser, “They took it to us all throughout this game and it was tough on our pitching staff … There’s no soft spots in that lineup. I think it wears on pitching staffs.”
As Rooker said, that who MSU is. They do it on the mound, too, where junior pitcher Daniel Brown pitched the final 3.1 innings in shut-down fashion, allowing no runs and no hits as he cruised through the final frames in only 37 pitches, 26 of them strikes. His performance, like so many others for MSU Friday, was indicative of who the Bulldogs are as a team.
When something is required, someone provides.
“He really got us on a roll at a time when we needed him to,” Cohen said. “His breaking ball when he’s commanding it and hitting in the zone, it’s a high, high professional level pitch.”
“Daniel,” Rooker added, “did an unbelievable job.”
Friday, it turns out, was chocked full of hard-to-believe moments. And in this instance, Rooker is happy to see, they turned out in MSU’s favor. Next time, he may not find it so hard to believe.