Parks Keeps Setting The Pace For SEC Hitters

Odd as the thought seems, the lowest moment of Jarrod Parks' baseball career could very well have been what makes him the highest hitter of this Southeastern Conference season. Odd, indeed, but Parks himself agrees. "I guess it has, because my swing has totally changed since that first surgery. And I guess it's worked out for the better."

Maybe even the best, at least if the Mississippi State senior stays this 2011 pace at the plate. Parks begins May still atop the SEC charts for both his .406 batting average and .530 on-base percentage. For perspective, the second-best hitter in the league this week is Vanderbilt's Aaron Westlake at .382. The Commodore is also second-best in reaching base at .508.

For a league-leader, Parks sure takes such status lightly.

"I didn't know I was until a couple of weeks ago when I got the message from Mr. (Joe) Dier, then I heard about it on twitter," he shrugs. "But I don't keep up with it. And I didn't know about the hitting streak until you guys brought it up! I knew I had a few games, but I just hear about it word-of-mouth."

That word is in-print as well as State's third baseman has hit his way on the last 16 games, second-longest such active SEC streak. Such consistency is of course how Parks has kept that average up, giving him a good chance to be the first Dog to win the SEC batting title since Thomas Berkery in 2006. And, to be only the tenth member of MSU's .400 season club.

It is lofty status for such a low-key guy. "And I just try to do the same thing every game, get a hit. And I've got lucky a few times."

Back to the original point: it was awful luck in the form of a junior college injury, which could easily have threatened his career, which seems to have turned Parks into the every-game producer he's become this spring. By the way, Parks' marks are all the more deserving attention because he is still playing with pain resulting from year-ago surgery to fix some disturbed discs. He rested the back a bit last week during final exams break, but that Alabama double-header had him showing another sort of seniority by the evening.

"Saturday, I mean it was a long day. Towards the later part of the second game I was feeling just slow, trying to get through the game best I could." Yet still getting hits, on the bases, and giving his club the chance to win. By the way, Parks doesn't just get hits; he gets hit, with a dozen plunking in 42 games. Twice in fact he took fastballs to the back, perilously close to his pain point at that. He claims not to have been bothered by those.

"The worst one I've taken, beside the one to the face, is the one to the leg the other day. My leg is still hurting right now. Other than that I feel fine." Don't expect him to change his batting stance or start dodging either. "I don't know what it is, I guess it's because I don't move whenever the ball is coming at me. But I get hit a lot."

For that matter, Parks says his approach at the plate isn't so different than at his corner of the infield. "Pretty much, I do the same thing with ground balls. When it's hit hard I kind of stand there and let it bounce off me, and throw them out after that!" And in case any think Parks is looking for a lumping, not really. He has a fine eye for the dish with a team-topping 27 walks that are no small factor in his reaching base over half the time.

Again, though, there is the under-appreciated aspect of how Parks became the type of batter he now is. Go back to May 2007, two days before sMeridian Comm. College was to begin regional playoffs. "I was fielding a bunt my freshman year, the pitcher didn't hear me calling him off and he just trucked me." The result of that pile-up was Parks left lying on the field, not moving with numb limbs.

"Everybody thought I'd got the breath knocked out of me, but the ambulance had to come out there and take me off the field. After about 15 minutes my leg came back, I knew something was wrong with my back, but I didn't think anything long-term about it. I didn't know about slipped discs and all that stuff until they told me about it."

The Madison native also didn't know there could be any long-term effects because he kept playing. In 2008 he was the All-Region shortstop for the state junior college champions with a .375 average and 14 home runs. He signed with Mississippi State that summer and played 20 games as a junior cornerman with seven starts, awaiting his 2010 shot at a full-time job. And he earned it in fall ball.

But over the winter everything changed. "That disc kept coming out until it hit those nerves. That's when the leg pain came and I had to have surgery." Sitting out the entire season hurt as well, but at least he expected the operation to cure everything quickly. "But the first day I started rehab, I was like oh my gosh, this is going to be one long and tough process. And it has been."

Just bending, fielding, and making the first step towards first base for throwing was hard enough. "Then when I sat down after ground balls and tried to stand back up, my whole body was locked up. Trying to hit the first time it looked like pitches were 150 miles an hour."

Ahhh, but the very adjustments made to slow down how approaching pitches looked were the start of something good. "I tried not to get jammed, not swing-and-miss, just stay inside everything and swing really soft." Those sensible shifts to prevent over-torquing his back suddenly proved the best plate approach he could have given how college hitting, and pitching, have changed with the new bats.

"And I guess all of that has carried over to what I do now at the plate, trying to take the ball the other way and not swing as hard as I used to."

Perhaps the real surprise is how Parks is 4th in SEC slugging average at .573. Really surprising, considering he has two home runs all season—which might be a better indicator of how the bats have shaken up offense in college baseball generally, and in the power-happy SEC particularly. Then again 12 doubles and (yet another surprise) three triples is pretty fair slugging for anyone in today's game.

Of course a guy who had double-digit dingers in junior college would love a longball at times. Still Parks can make a game within this game since everyone's power is down. Take Sunday, when classmate Cody Freeman slugged the game-changing, two-run shot against Alabama. On-site witnesses swear Freeman was robbed of a first-inning homer that caromed off a grill and back into the field of play, and Parks won't pass on this opportunity.

"I made fun of him that he should have three and would have more than me, but we're still tied so me and him can have a little home run race. But I don't consider myself a big-time home run threat, so…"

Speaking of fun, it would seem Bulldog batters would be grinding down their molars in frustration over so many well-struck balls in recent games that go right into gloves. Just a few of those bullets miss leather, and Mississippi State could easily be over .500 in the SEC standings right now and confident of their post-season situation. Instead of aggravation, though, Parks agrees with something his head coach said over the weekend: they make a joke of the bad breaks.

"No, we definitely laugh," he said. Such as when an Alabama pinch-hitter, with a oh-fer season so far, slugged a first pitch home run in the top of the tenth that became the winning margin. "And he's screaming around the bases, going crazy. That's funny! I'm just trying to hit three home runs, and he's hit one in nine ABs!" Seriously, though, Parks uses that example as evidence how the Bulldogs are keeping an even keel after the ups-and-downs of a tough seven SEC weeks.

"Things like that seem to happen to us a lot, but you have to push forward." Just the way Parks keeps pushing himself with the problematic back. He protects himself best he can, such as sliding head-first when practical. "I like getting dirty so I'm down with that!" He had some scheduled injections this spring and keeps one more in reserve, just in case another is needed down the season stretch.

Hopefully a longer stretch, too, if the Bulldogs can make the most of remaining schedule opportunity and win their way into the post-season. As painful as dropping the winnable Alabama series was, State still controls its own SEC and NCAA fate as the West remains far too close to call with three weekends left.

But, Parks knows, not much margin remains in the upcoming nine games that will settle the eight-team SEC Tournament field. "Luckily we have an opponent that's been weaker in the East coming up. And, from what I hear the teams we're up against (in the West) are playing tough opponents. So hopefully we'll gain a lot more ground this weekend."

The Bulldogs were to leave this morning with a scheduled 6:00 game at South Alabama, though wet weather was heading into the Mobile area. The SEC schedule resumes Friday with a 5:00 (CT) game at Tennessee, followed by a 3:00 game-two and 1:06 Sunday start for SportSouth telecast.

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