Vickerson Enjoying Senior Surge At Plate

No ballplayer, least of all a batter, enjoys watching from the dugout even if he understands the situation. But that couple of games Nick Vickerson sat out for matchup reasons surely seems to have done this Dog good. Because since returning to every-game status Vickerson has been dominating the dish.

"I don't think it's a secret that I struggled early and wasn't helping the team like I needed to," the senior said. "But it feels good to be helping lately."

Helping? That's putting it most mildly. After missing a couple of contests in the South Carolina series, Vickerson has produced in a big way. He has hit safely for 16-of-31 appearances in a seven-game stretch, driving in ten runs and scoring ten times as well. That includes plating himself twice on home runs, including a momentum-making shot in Mississippi State's sweep of Tennessee.

Or look at his 11-of-21 hitting in the ongoing five-game win streak, and a career five-RBI evening Friday against the Volunteers. Asked what's gotten into him lately, Vickerson just shrugs.

"I think confidence is the main thing. I see guys around me hitting good and I think it's just contagious, to be honest." Perhaps Vickerson ought to allot himself a little credit for spreading the offensive infection. Only teammate and fellow infielder Jarrod Parks has been hotter lately, and of course Parks is the SEC's leading swinger this season. Vickerson's .325 SEC average trails his partner of course, but it's the second-best Bulldog batting in league play.

More impressively, it is better than his overall season rate of .312. And players who bat better against conference competition are few and far between, right? Maybe so but look at 2010 when Vickerson hit .325 for the season and .333 in SEC action. Say, there's bound to be some story there. After all, haven't the new and in many college minds neutered bats hurt everyone?

Not Vickerson. Or not since he got back into a groove. His issues for stretches of this senior season were not anything technical; it was his coaching staff scripting the offense by classic matchups. Right-handed batter Vickerson had a pretty good idea if he was starting or subbing based on who the opposition sent to the mound first. Not always, but enough to be a trend.

And, to result in another sort of trend because when Vickerson did alternate back into the order a little timing and touch had been lost. Not much, but then it takes very little to tip things in a SEC pitcher's favor.

"I think that had a lot to do with me struggling," Vickerson said. "And I don't blame Coach for doing what he did. But I'm grateful they stuck me out there against a righty against Alabama to get a little confidence." All he did that weekend was hit safely eight times. Now, Coach John Cohen and aides see no reason to make that move as Vickerson has been hurting moundsmen on both sides.

But back to the bats a moment. Seriously, has that been a factor to him this season? Not really, he said, though there are definite difference in construction. "I think the weight is more towards the end of the bat," he noted, resulting in a smaller sweet spot. Certainly there are no cheap home runs this spring…which in no way downplays the eight shots he slugged as a junior! And Vickerson still can make a pitcher pay for mistakes, such as he did at Knoxville.

"Yeah, he left one up. And their park is a little smaller than ours. I'll take it!" For the record Vickerson wonders if his own moving up a bat size at mid-season, a 34/31 model, has mattered one way or the other.

And as a by the way, Vickerson has heard Mississippi State may receive another shipment of even newer sticks soon, reputedly with the end-to-end weight a bit more balanced. Again, though, it shouldn't be that big of a deal. "But we found ways to even then out, put some tape at the bottom. So I think everybody has started doing that. As far as pop, if you get one you still get it. I think people have put too much into it." In fact, he thinks the subject ought to be settled for everyone by now. "I think it's been more mental than anything. They're weighted a little bit differently but I don't think that's an excuse."

Fans need not fear that Vickerson is going to change his approach in search of further power, or be tempted by the similarly short fences he'll see in the coming SEC weekend. Consistency counts for more than raw crunch in this year's game, and even moreso for the 2011 Bulldogs. Still if a ball just happens to clear a fair fence, so much the better.

"We don't try to, but we'll take them when we can get them. We just try to focus on line drives and ground balls and I think if you focus that way they'll come more often than you expect."

There's another factor contributing to Vickerson's resurgent offense. Besides settling into the daily order again, he's rewarded the coaching staff for staying with him at second base the last two weekends. His defense in the Alabama series was the best of his college career. As it should be, Vickerson said.

"I think I've just had more time over there this year. Last year I started there, then they needed me at third so that was a little bit of an adjustment." A lot of adjustment; he started the first seven games of 2010 in the four hole before moving to the hot corner in place of the injured Parks. Cohen has a saying, that the game ‘finds' uncomfortable players and a .843 fielding rate in SEC play proved it.

"But the fact I've been left over there (at second), I've gotten some confidence and gotten more comfortable." With just three errors in 43 games—that includes a number of starts in leftfield—everybody is more comfortable. Vickerson also agrees that having a reliable backup, in talented second baseman/shortstop Adam Frazier, has relieved just a little bit of pressure on he and Jonathan Ogden to do or die daily.

"I think that helps. But it creates some competition, too. We expect to come to the field and play every day but we know if we're not locked-in or something there's a chance we may not play. So I think that helps out."

The Bulldogs haven't played flawless defense in the win streak by any means. But neither have they committed back-breaking errors as in several of their previous defeats. Infielder Vickerson gives this credit where it is first due, to teammates on the mound; but adds how everything is fitting together now.

"I think our pitching has been great. They filled up the zone all weekend and I think that helps the bats too. Because they're out there filling it up and we're making plays and coming back in, instead of staying out there and well, here comes a pitching change. I think that's really helped our sticks."

Another helping hand has come from where it should at this point of a season. In last week's four wins, including the romp at South Alabama, four of the top six hitters were seniors. Parks and Vickerson have set the pace, true, but their classmates—whether two- or four-year Dogs—are coming through collectively now. "It feels good," Vickerson said.

"Players really look up to the seniors to do well for this team, and when you don't you get upset with yourself. But I think things are coming together and we'll pull this thing through."

All the way through to the post-season, he meant. To something not even the eldest Dog on this '11 roster has experienced at State. Sweeping Tennessee got them back on a tournament track but the SEC standings are so tight—especially in the frenzied Western Division where five teams are within a game of each other—that a series stumble can spoil all high hopes. Fortunately the Bulldogs are playing with confidence here when it counts and can take some momentum into this key week.

Oh, and some added motivation, too, as they look to the showdown series with Ole Miss in Oxford starting Thursday. Intense, yes. Intimidated? Not at all.

"I think it's going to be a lot of fun," Vickerson forecasts. "Yeah, it's going to be hostile but we can't worry about that. I tell you, it's going to be a fun series for sure."

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