Henderson Has Big Hand In SEC Tourney Win

Given a bit more time to consider the situation, Demarcus Henderson might have played cautious. But there he was running flat-out, after a line-fly drive. And Henderson's blood was up. "I've had that opportunity to make that play a couple of times this year and didn't. I felt like this time was a better time to come get that ball instead of letting it drop."

Drop the baseball did, into Henderson's outstretched glove. He lay sprawled on the leftfield turf of Regions Park with mitt clearly containing what was left of Jacoby Jones' scorched shot, and for that matter the last LSU chance to prevent a 3-2 victory by Mississippi State.

Because after Henderson hauled in that ball the Tigers kept going down meekly to Bulldog relief pitching with no further dramatics required. Henderson had supplied more than enough of that already, as not only did he keep the tying Tiger off the basepaths. He had driven in the margin of Mississippi State's win in the top of the sixth after LSU forced a temporary 2-2 tie.

"In all it was a great day," Henderson said, and every Dog agreed. Including a coach who, in a two-out situation, might have advised caution. "In some respects I was hoping he'd back up and let the guy get to first base, and get our next out!" Coach John Cohen said. "But he made a very athletic play."

The sort of play Henderson was signed to make out of Wayne County two years ago. It's been a tough transition though. Inexperience against top-quality competition showed as a true freshman, exacerbated by what was found to be vision issues. Surgery last summer fixed that and Henderson got a redshirt season to boot.

Then after a delayed start to 2012, Henderson went on a pre-SEC tear with base hits in ten-straight games. Conference pitching, now…

"It was a tough struggle for me. I mean, I started off very good until we got to SEC play, then guys started coming with off-speed. So I had to make and adjustment." Even that got interrupted as on a successful bunt against South Carolina he cracked his left ring-finger back up in the hand. Henderson didn't take another at-bat until May 15.

But the down-time wasn't wasted either. Because it was Henderson subbing-in for the third game with Kentucky and dropping a successful squeeze bunt to begin a comeback win. He added a two-run single in the rout. Now here Henderson is, with a clutch hit in SEC Tournament play.

"Right now I'm still trying to make adjustments and get better. Because I'm not satisfied, I want to get better."

That long layoff might have contributed to how Henderson beat LSU, too. Or the Tigers thought they were still facing the shaky swinger who was 2-of-12 in Baton Rouge. Whatever reason, when LSU reliever Joe Broussard got ahead two strikes in that tied-game situation with Mitch Slauter standing on second, went back to the bender.

"I kind of figured that because that's how they pitched me all year, breaking balls. But I was like if he's going to leave this up I'm going to take advantage of it." The ball didn't break; Henderson hit it and well, just far enough right of centerfield—and Jones by twist of fate—for Slauter to scamper on home.

"I was surprised it was as hittable a ball like that in the pitcher's count. But I'll take what they give me any time."

Still it was that saving snag which will make the highlight list. LSU Coach Paul Mainieri suggested, with good reason, that had it missed the mitt the speed Jones could have scored an inside-park homer that would have re-tied the tally and maybe shaken Bulldog confidence. No wonder Cohen admitted half-hoping Henderson would play it safe, keep Jones on first base and let Reed go for another out.

"I don't think he was joking," Henderson admitted. "Sometimes if it's that close of a play you let it fall and keep the runner back. But I took the opportunity, sometimes you've got to live and die on one play. I knew I was going to either trap it and kind of make him give it to me. But I was like no way I can let this fall, our pitchers are dealing so I have to play great defense behind them."

Great defense indeed. Henderson was following-suit, in a sense, from what shortstop Adam Frazier did making his own Tuesday highlight play on the infield. For that matter MSU's outfield already had a huge play to the plus. In the third inning Jones—naturally—was on second base with two outs when a base hit dropped in front of centerfielder Hunter Renfroe. The former pitcher showed off the arm big-time with a shot to third base just ahead of the sliding Jones, a Mississippi native who by now has to be sick of his home-state squad's defenders.

Fact is, Henderson still isn't a whole 100%. He caught that ball on the injured hand, which must be taped pre-game with a pad inserted on the palm area. "You can still see the swelling. It's not a big deal, I just have to get it going but after that I'm fine," Henderson said. Did making the grab hurt, once the thrill wore off? Or after his clutch RBI-single? "Ahhh, nah, I don't think so! The little pad I've got takes away some of the vibration of the bat."

Or maybe Henderson wouldn't tell the truth anyway on this. He's endured enough interruptions already as a Bulldog and now is enjoying some time in the spotlight. With both bat and glove, at that. Kentucky did take him for granted a bit when Henderson chipped the Sunday single.

Or as he joked in a very politically-incorrect comment, "I kind of get pitched backwards. Some guys tell me the darker the skin, the tighter the spin!" More seriously, the average still requires lots of work just to reach respectable numbers. And all he's achieved by making some timely taps here lately is force pitchers to change approaches.

"Now they're starting to go cut-fastballs on me. So I have to see if I can make an adjustment coming out of the hand."

Regardless, progress is showing and just at the right time to be remembered. Henderson's gutsy efforts at plate and in field also offer an excellent example of why this Bulldog bunch was able to reverse their course midway of SEC season, to turn a 5-10 start into a 16-14 final SEC record. And now, SEC Tourney triumphs over West rivals Arkansas and LSU. Mississippi State is confident a NCAA at-large berth is now secure.

What they would like to do the rest of this week is make it automatic with a tournament title. That might even be enough to shove State past other contenders and steal a NCAA regional berth for Dudy Noble Field. A long shot yet, maybe…but much better than no shot. And the formula is something these guys are comfortable with: strong starting pitching and relief work combined with reliable defense, and just enough offense to win. And, to drive the other club crazy.

There is no secret though, Henderson said. "We've got heart. We had a talk before the game about what guys used to do, what got us to Mississippi State. So coach told us to be confident, don't go crazy, stay focused and do what you you've got to do.

By winning the first two games, the Bulldogs advance to Thursday's winners bracket battle with Kentucky. It is a noonish game time, for the third straight day. If nothing else, State doesn't have to report to Regions park for a 9:30 start all week.

"That's good, maybe we can sleep-in a little bit. It took me a little bit today to get out of bed," Henderson said. "I had to slap myself around and just finally got up!" Not, presumably, with the healing hand. Nope, he agreed. "I wouldn't necessarily say my hand is hurting but sometimes it's hard to get it going."

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