So while there was no reason to imagine intent after Vickerson slapped yet another first inning RBI-hit, which, yes, would go down on the record as the game-winner…neither would one wonder if the third Georgia Tech pitcher of the evening was gonna be beaten by this Bulldog. Nope, he was going to bring the heat.
Nope, Vickerson wasn't expecting it.
"Yeah, I was looking for an off-speed pitch," he said. "And it was far from an off-speed pitch, I didn't have time to get out of the way." Instead the fastball clanged into the batting helmet, dropping Vickerson for a minute or two until being helped to the training room. Fortunately he was just a bit dazed and fully able to join teammates in celebrating both the Sunday victory and the Regional championship.
And, advancing to this weekend's Gainesville super regional where Vickerson will be back in the lineup, no damage lingering. "It feels pretty good," he said of the head after a practice where he fielded a few ground balls, took BP cuts, and re-tuned for Friday's first game with Florida. When the lineup is handed in, Vickerson can count on seeing his name still there.
In the cleanup slot, too. The second half of his senior season has been a real success story ever since Coach John Cohen moved Vickerson from first to fourth. Not that the senior was a failure batting first by any means; Vickerson did a fine job getting on base, moving around the paths, and scoring runs just the way someone in that slot should.
All the same it was something of a forced fit.
"And I knew I wasn't a prototypical leadoff," Vickerson said. Thing is, the one Mississippi State had was not quite prepared for that responsibility. Not until halfway into the freshman season was C.T. Bradford put first in the order, and results since show the wisdom of protecting this rookie until ready. Bradford has blossomed as a stage-setter, and even run-producer himself as the order comes back around. His excellent offense at Atlanta earned the kid Most Outstanding Player honors.
Ahhh, but the change has done Vickerson quite a lot of good as well, and had he not gotten knocked, literally, out on Sunday he might have made a M.O.P. case too. After all, what are the odds of providing the game-winning RBI in all three tournament games? As it was Vickerson made all-tournament too, continuing a late-season surge that has made him perhaps the most consistent club on the, well, club.
Just don't ask him for a specific reason why.
"I think it's just a matter of some balls finding some holes. I don't think my swing is any different. My approach might have changed a little bit, but I think it's just balls finding holes. I hit so many balls early in the year that got caught." Now his drives are finding green, or in some cases the far exit. Five of his seven home runs have come since moving down in the order.
More importantly in this offensive scheme though is what Vickerson has done since slotted at cleanup. He's hit a few longballs, sure, but much more often has delivered doubles. Eleven of his 28 hits since April 30 have been two-baggers, with a fly-ball triple for good measure. Again, he really is not sure why moving around in an order has improved the extra-base production.
"But I just try to go up there like I'm in leadoff, I don't think I have a different approach," Vickerson said. "Maybe I'm staying on the ball a little longer. And balls I would have pulled down the left field line are staying in the gap, things like that."
There are some observer suggestions, though. Such as, moving from leadoff means Vickerson isn't the first to face a starting pitcher. He can observe the arm in action at least for an inning, though of late with Bradford heating up Vickerson can almost count on getting a first-frame turn of his own. Then there is the guy swinging before Vickerson, the focus of scouting reports. There are lots of reasons why 3B Jarrod Parks could have gone on this late-season slump, but opponent obsession with not giving him something to hit must top the list.
So guess who benefits most from that gameplan? "Oh yeah, that helps me out a lot," Vickerson said. "Because they throw Jarrod tough all the time so I get to see a mix of pitches before I get up there, when if I'm hitting two they throw two pitches. Jarrod gets to see three pitches." Which of course Vickerson sees from a safer distance and can file away for immediate reference.
Besides, he said, "I've got some guys behind me protecting me. And I think the biggest thing is Coach sees adjustments we need to make and we make them. Just pitch selection is the biggest thing. I don't think it has anything to do with hitting in the four-hole, I think I just need to spit on stuff in the dirt and be aggressive early in the count if they give me a pitch to hit. Sometimes you get so picky that before you know it they throw some pitches you aren't looking for and you're down 0-1 and 0-2."
His hitting has caught most attention over the last five weeks. But defense shouldn't be overlooked. A middle infielder by trade, Vickerson was forced to move over to third base (40 starts) as a junior by injuries and other issues. He did his best on the hot corner but ended up with 19 errors. Thanks to a healthy Parks, he's only had to start once at third this year.
And while Vickerson had some fielding flaws the first half of the senior season, even moving to leftfield for a while, his offense was needed daily and State opted to stick with him at second. The outcome was the finest stretch of glove-work in Vickerson's college career. Not just that he cut down on boots, but beginning with the Alabama series he suddenly turned into a fielding machine making both routine and even spectacular plays. Those there on an evening in Oxford still recall how he ran all the way into, literally, leftfield to rob Brent Brownlee of a high fly.
Vickerson said it wasn't quite as remarkable as may have seemed. "I was playing closer behind second base that time, and I saw Brent was playing pretty far back. (SS Jonathan) Ogden could have made the catch but his back was to the ball. So I ran out there and got it."
Most good things must end though and after 36 errorless games Vickerson made a mistake. Playing very, very deep in second, practically a softball short-fielder, he got a grounder off Georgia Tech and threw about twice as high as 1B Ryan Collins could jump.
"I finally did make me an error over there, I guess it was coming! I should have made the play, they had that short porch in right and Coach (Nick) Mingione had a friend that used to coach there, he said if you're second baseman has a good arm let him play back." Yeah, Vickerson sure showed how good his arm was by sailing that throw.
"I can't be upset, errors come. But I was happy with the streak, and Coach has left me over there and let me work some things out. We worked on getting my face closer to the glove and my footwork, and all that has played into it. And just being comfortable played into it."
Vickerson clearly has found his comfort zone with bat and glove here at the serious end of his senior season. Getting to go out in NCAA play makes the long labors worth it. Fans might recall how the Tuscaloosa native began his college career at Florida State, playing 13 regular season games but not in the conference tournament or NCAAs. His initial exposure to postseason play at the SEC Tournament was productive on his stat sheet but not in the scorebook and that matters more for an old Dog.
But he said the Atlanta Regional showed what this team can do when on their game. It's an attitude Mississippi State is taking to Gainesville.
"I don't think the SEC Tournament was a slump. We made some mistakes that we learned from and turned it around Atlanta. I think we're going to Florida with some confidence, we played them tough in four games and we saw all their pitchers. That might help us down the line." What also gives Vickerson and squad encouragement is the almost entirely unpredictable nature of this NCAA Tournament so far. The Bulldogs are not the only three-seed squad advancing to a super regional round, after all.
"It's crazy. But that's how baseball is. You have a pitcher filling up the zone and the bigger teams can't stay hot all year, every player goes in a slump. So there is a little luck involved with some, and guys going in with confidence." Besides, he agrees, the one absolutely predictable fact about Mississippi State in 2011 is…the Bulldogs are absolutely unpredictable.
Or put another way, if the Dogs don't know what to expect, how can the opponent? That counts for some sort of advantage, right?
"It really is," said Vickerson. "If we can get the whole team rolling at the same time we're going to be tough to deal with. And I think we're headed that way. Florida , they're clearly to be respected, I think they've got 20 players drafted already before this draft! But you can't be afraid of them, you have to respect them and take what you get and capitalize on mistakes if they make them."
Vickerson's career has just gotten another boost. Tuesday, he was drafted in the 24th round by the Chicago Cubs. Yet scouts all along have not tracked him for his efforts in the infield or outfield. In fact many claim his real pro position is catcher, something he has not done at MSU since there were already guys behind the plate.
"I've heard that a lot, too," he said of the possible change. "And I'm willing to try it out. I'm just trying to play at the next level and getthe opportunity, and I think I could make the transition back there. I mean, it worked out for Buster Posey!"
For now though Vickerson just wants the super regional to work out in Mississippi State's favor. Meaning he'll do whatever necessary to extend this season to the ultimate goal…even, he said, if he has to get hit again. Though he would rather it be something he can prepare for. This stuff can hurt.
"It's the second time, I got hit in junior college in the face," he said. "It broke my nose. So I have a track record of not getting out of the way." What, has ‘Nick Vick' been taking lessons from Parks, who just set the program season record by taking his 20th plunking of the senior season?
Not at all, Vickerson stresses.
"Jarrod leans in there, it's crazy. I'll swing at a pitch that almost hits me, that's the difference between me and him."