Well said, and honestly too. Then again Bradford ought to take at least some personal pride in being voted by media as the top dog—and Dog—in the Atlanta Regional. And if he was caught by surprise, well, no one else watching the tournament was. Not after the show this Mississippi State freshman put on over three days in Atlanta.
In the trio of Bulldog victories Bradford went 7-of-13 with the bat, along with another walk that put him at better than .500 in reaching base. He drove in five teammates while scoring three times himself. And perhaps most importantly, as the lead Dog in this batting order Bradford truly did lead the way.
Because in all three games as he took first turn at the plate, Bradford reached safely via hitting or walking. The eventual outcome was twice he scored Mississippi State's first run, or that initial reaching set up a teammate to tally in that same frame. It was just the sort of tone-setting that made an impression on the opposition, and rewarded the faith Coach John Cohen showed in ordering the new kid first.
Though, Cohen says now, that was the plan all along anyway as soon as Mississippi State signed the state of Florida's 2010 Mr. Baseball. "I didn't want to shove him into that role too early, I wanted him to have a period to get used to playing college baseball," Cohen said.
"But we knew even before he stepped into our program that he was going to be a leadoff guy; the question was when would it happen." The answer: April 8, against ironically enough his home-state school Florida. Since then Bradford has batted first in all but two games and 29-straight. That ties him now with the senior who hit leadoff the first 29 games, second baseman Nick Vickerson.
As Cohen puts it, "He took the reins," and Bradford hasn't looked back. Instead he looks ahead to picking up the stick and taking his (left) side of the batters box for the opening opposing pitch. Funny thing, he isn't looking to make an instant impression.
"I've just gone up there with the mindset of make them throw as many pitches as I can, and let my teammates see his arm-slot and see timing and all that. It just worked out, I've been seeing it well."
Hitting it pretty darn well, too. He left Atlanta with a 11-game hitting streak, and during this stretch he has batted 17-of-50 or .340. Even better, Bradford's first postseason experiences have been very positive at the plate. In five tournament, SEC or NCAA, games he is 10-of-21 with four more walks.
It isn't just his good work starting scoring innings that sent Mississippi State another round into the NCAAs. Bradford is a run-producer as well. Against Austin Peay State it was Bradford coming back up with a runner on and one out in a 1-0 game. Having taken the ball the other way in his first-inning single (eventually scoring) this time lefty Bradford pulled a double down the right side line for the RBI that started a seven-run State explosion to seal the game.
The next night he also put MSU on the board by getting driven-in against Georgia Tech in the opening inning. Second time with two outs and two ons, Bradford went back to leftfield with a drive that dropped for a two-run double. For good measure he drove in two more scores with a third-inning single. Having hit safely the first three turns in the championship game the tournament officials may as well have announced Bradford as M.O.P. right then.
Which the pup would have shrugged off anyway since there was the real remaining business of finishing the win. The Dogs did and now are headed to Gainesville for the super regional round. As excited as Bradford is over such tourney-time success in his first college campaign, he is a little more thrilled for others on this 2011 roster.
"I couldn't be more happy for the older guys. They've been here and they've worked hard and done everything they possibly could have done to get in the postseason and get this far. Those are the guys I'm actually happiest for."
That said, getting to play NCAA ball in the home state is pretty Dog-gone satisfying for the Bradford family. They and friends will provide a sizable cheering section this weekend in McKethan Stadium, most notably a certain former Diamond Dog. Mike Bradford is remembered by veteran State fans as a hard-nosed third baseman, lettering in 1982-83 and getting to enjoy some NCAA action of his own as a senior.
Naturally there are times familial pride is overcome by player pride. After all it was C.T. who was Mr. Baseball so he has one-up on pop, right? The younger Bradford says father is not so easily trumped.
"There is a little bit of trash talk here and there. but he is proud of me and we have a great relationship." Yeah, but c'mon, who was/is the best college player? "Ahhh, he thinks he was. I think he got better when he got older!"
Of course Mississippi State has increasing expectations of C.T. as he gets older too. A muscle pull has limited his opportunities to do something he was also signed for, late-inning relief pitching. So there is that to look forward to. Aging will also add at least a few pounds of muscle to that frame and only improve his offensive ability. Sooner or later Bradford is bound to get all-ahold of something and collect his first college home run.
"You just see this guy starting to evolve as a hitter, and thank goodness as a freshman we're going to have him for a while," Cohen said. For now Bradford simply wants the 2011 team to keep playing a while longer. This week's trip to Gator Country will hopefully be just the next stop in a June journey.
"It feels good, it's going to be fun and we can't wait."