Instead Rea slammed a high shot that carried to the second fence behind leftfield for a 3-0 lead which proved all the runs State really needed to beat Arkansas. Oh yeah, did the freshman ever hit a better and bigger fly ball than he even hoped.
"We had second and third and I was really thinking small and trying to get under something, get it in the outfield in a RBI situation. But with the velocity that guy was throwing the ball kind of jumped for me." That guy being Razorback righthander Ryne Stanek. If anything, Stanek contributed to just how far Rea's contact carried when all the Bulldog wanted was to lift something, somewhere.
"That happens a lot when a guy is throwing 94, 96 miles an hour," Rea said. "Balls kind of jump like that." Well, not often as impressively high as this one jumped. In fact Rea thought a crosswind might knock it down just shy of the first fence."
"I knew it had a chance. But nothing I can do but put the barrel on the ball in this yard and whatever happens, happens."
It is easy to get the wrong idea about Rea's redshirt year batting as he looks to be swinging for fences all the time. Not so. The nature of his size, especially shoulder span, and getting bat around in the zone means a long hack. Rea doesn't deny struggling a lot this season with pitches out of the zone, most notably those located off the outer edge with a late break.
Then there is the shoulder nerve issue that leaves his right forearm numb with obvious effects on his bat control. The result has been a team-most 61 strikeouts in the regular season, and a 1-of-40 slump down the stretch. Fortunately before the Kentucky series the doctors found a knot high in the shoulder pressing on a nerve; a shot gave some welcome relief to Rea.
And two base hits, one for two RBI in the 3-1 opening win, were welcome relief for State's offense. He went 5-of-12 in the series sweep, and now has the biggest hit of the SEC Tournament opening day. "I know his shoulder has been bothering him but he tells me it's fine every day," Coach John Cohen said. "He's shown a lot of courage, and that swing has come a long way."
Obviously when Rea makes this kind of contact the ball goes a longer way, too. But he promises to stay within himself and keep trying to pound base hits through the infield, or work for walks, or take pitches off the body…he has 30 free passes those ways this season. At least any plunkings catch the left shoulder instead of the still-problematic right one.
"The shoulder is doing better it is nagging every now and then. But nothing that is going to alter my game."
LONG TIME COMING: Tuesday saw Mississippi State's first SEC Tournament win since the championship game of 2005 when those Dogs defeated Ole Miss for the trophy. Rea was 13 years old at the time. "I probably just got through with school and was playing a little traveling ball and trying to figure out what I was going to do in college. I was hitting a lot more then than now!"
This was Rea's fifth homer of the season, but the first since April 13 at South Carolina.
GOLDEN GLOVE: A two-error count might not look like a defensive gem. And another defensive miscue not ruled an official E led to Arkansas' only run. But witnesses agree: there was some brilliant Bulldog defense played in the win.
The most remarkable feats came via the good glove and faster feet of SS Adam Frazier. In the fourth inning the sophomore got to a tough grounder by Razorback Bo Bigham and fired to first for a cap-tipping out. This was right after Frazier sucked in a line-shot for the first out of that inning.
But it was in the bottom of the seventh Frazier showed real flair. With State clinging to a 3-1 margin and one runner on base, Arkansan cleanup batter spanked one off MSU reliever Ross Mitchell that seemed sure to get to centerfield and put the tying runners on. Frazier didn't give up, racing behind the bag for the snag. Excellent so far, yet he had no chance to stop and throw.
So Frazier didn't try. He flipped the glove semi-backwards towards the base where 2B Matt Britton scooped on the short bounce. Britton made it all even better with a just-in-time-or-close-enough relay to Rea for a double-play the umpire just could not resist ruling.
Necessity was the mother of creativity, Frazier said, sort of. "I just knew that was the only play I had. And Briton did a great job turning it."
Cohen didn't have a good view. "We're pretty low in the dugout. We had to ask him what happened." Of course Cohen knew what had happened. And, what it meant in the bigger picture beyond another clip for the season highlight tape.
"He made a play that could have affected the outcome. It was a remarkable play and really jump-started us a little bit."
Ironically, Frazier was charged with one of those errors; on the first Arkansas at-bat of the day in fact, as he caught, and dropped, a leadoff grounder. Safe to say he much more than balanced his books. "I didn't make all the plays. But when I got to the ball I tried to make plays."
STAYING HOT: Frazier's bat was maybe hotter than the glove as he had three singles in four official at-bats, and a walk in the first inning to boot. He has hit safely in seven-straight games now and in this stretch is 14-of-25, stretching his team-lead in batting.
What Frazier did not do Tuesday was score, left stranded every time. But he did as much as anyone to build the pitch count early and keep pressure on the Razorbacks. I just try to get on every time I come to the plate. That's the goal for me. It gets frustrating when you don't get in but you have to keep grinding through it."
GOOD WOOD: Brandon Woodruff went ten appearances and four starts without a win in his regular season. None of that mattered a bit to the freshman when he got the ball to start State's SEC Tournament. It proved the right choice as Woodruff also got his first win over a conference club (see game story).
Woodruff was excited at the chance and challenge, yet kept the emotions under control for 5.0 full frames to pick up the decision with a two-hitter and no runs charged. What stood out on the stat sheet as much as the scoreless line was just one walk against five strikeouts. This was no mean feat given Arkansas' offensive ability. For a rookie, the righty attacked Razorbacks like a seasoned hand.
"I tried to show-in to the righties just to let them know I was coming in, then I'd try to go slider away to keep them honest. But I tried to work both sides of the plate and I think that's what helped me out today."
"When he challenges the strike zone, he's good," Cohen said. "That makes him more economic and gets him deeper into the game. And we really love the progression of how he's come along." Besides, Cohen said, with the usual starters not ready to go on Tuesday this was just the sort of break-through performance State needed.
"We knew in the post-season we would have to have somebody extra step up," said Cohen. Yet what Woodruff did hinted at more to come, the coach added. Not just this year. "I think he is going to be a great one. He has a chance to be the next type of Chris Stratton for our ball club."
MSU-ELLANEOUS: Bulldogs and Razorbacks have met five times now in SEC Tournaments. This was the first win by Mississippi State after losses in 1993, 1998 (twice), and 2011…With his seventh save, Jonathan Holder has the most successful slammings for a Bulldog freshman since Bryan Hardwick in 1979…Only three starters in State's order Tuesday had played in a SEC Tournament before.