"I was telling him hold on a second, people started calling me. So the police kind of had to delay a speeding ticket there! It might have made him mad but I didn't care!"
Rea can joke about it now, putting a peace officer on hold beside the highway. In fact the second-spring freshman has a lot to smile about as he is with this 2012 team heading to the Tallahassee Regional. Second-seed Mississippi State takes on third-seed Samford in a battle of Bulldogs at Dick Howser Stadium beginning at noon local, 11:00am central.
"It's huge, to potentially keep this thing going," Rea said. "It's a first time for this group of guys to accomplish something like that, so we're going to try to keep it going and get as deep as we can on this momentum swing we've got."
Rea is also rolling, so to speak, into the post-season. After struggling through the SEC regular schedule with a .188 average, Rea knocked the ball around at Regions Park at a .250 clip. Maybe not sizzling by some standards, but this is a marked picking-up of pace for the big first-sacker. He celebrated his first SEC Tournament at-bat as a Bulldog in a big way, too, crushing a three-run homer against Arkansas that jump-started State's surge to the championship.
"That was big for me to open up the week and get my swing going early." Or not-swinging as Rea walked five times at Hoover and twice got nailed by pitches. Those free passes nearly doubled his on-base rate to .478 for the week.
But by no means has Mississippi State, nor the rest of this conference, seen the real Rea in 2012. He sat out the rookie year with a shoulder issue left over from high school. This season he has been hampered, to say the least, by a nerve problem in the right (his throwing) shoulder cuff area. Just in time for the final regular-season series the team doctor turned up a knotted muscle pressing on that nerve; a shot helped Rea get some key hits and RBI in a momentum-accelerating sweep of Kentucky.
There is still a lot of residual rust in terms of reading and reacting to pitches, and SEC moundsmen know to come with breaking stuff and stay away much as possible. Still, Rea feels like a fresh man.
"I've got the shoulder thing figured out and that's been key. But feeling comfortable and confident is the main thing." And, despite that ball bounced off the second Hoover fence, not looking to muscle pitches out of the park. Big ones, especially. Though for that matter Rea says even if Howser Stadium is not nearly the spacious scale of Dudy Noble Field or Regions Park, he and other Bulldogs with potential bop can't succumb to temptation.
State with the offensive plan that's worked so well so far, is Rea's approach. "Knowing with our pitching staff we can score two, three runs and win a lot of ball games. That's really confident."
Nor do Dogs allow lack of longballs to hurt confidence, even if Rea and DH Trey Porter are tied for the team lead with just five home runs this season. Frustration, maybe? Yeah, there seems just a little bit, as Rea has seen several well-struck fly balls leave the batters box just fine only to fade before the fence. Not just at home, by the way.
"It's weird. Because we go to places like LSU, South Carolina, Florida, and in BP we're just hitting balls out. It's crazy because we're here and you have to try to hit one out, absolutely crush a ball. So it's neat going to places like that where you have the opportunity to hit home runs. But we can't change our approach." Meaning, get the barrel around and take the contact up the middle much as possible, and move runners.
Speaking of such… Even during a winning streak Baseball Critics can always find something worth second-guessing. In Mississippi State's case bunting draws the most in-game ire. Though, by now fans and even a few media recognize it is the best way for this team to manufacture that run or two the Bulldogs win with.
But baserunning is something that is cheered only when successful. And when State tried to score Rea from first base last week, on a two-out double by 2B Sam Frost against LSU, the second-guessers were given a real gift. Rea was still strides shy of third base when the ball was recovered in rightfield and there was no realistic chance to score. But it was a two-out situation and that is an almost-automatic send.
"I don't know, that's a long way to run!" Rea said in championship hindsight. "But I was out, and I couldn't get myself thrown out of the ball game and risk being suspended for the next game." Meaning, instead of smashing his super-sized frame into the Tiger catcher and maybe rattling the ball—and a few body parts—loose, he accepted the tag gracefully.
"I had to give myself up in that situation." Fans and media naturally questioned ‘giving up' a potential run if he'd stayed at third base. "A lot of times people watching the game don't understand," said Rea. "But there is a lot of stuff on the field that you wouldn't understand if you're not there, that happens a lot in baseball. We just do what the coaches tell us and move forward."
Well, if he can. There was another reason for not plowing into the backstop after running that far. "I was going as hard as I could, it was day four or five and my legs were shot." Rea wasn't as sluggish as he might have looked on replay, then? "I like to think I am a little faster. But when they see me try to score from first base they might think otherwise!"
One other detail from that play and game; Rea had a sore knee from a first-inning play when a one-hop grounder caromed off starting pitcher Jacob Lindgren. The ricochet went 90 degrees off Lindgren between home and first in foul territory, where Rea hustled it down with a sliding stop.
"That was kind of concrete under the grass and I stubbed the knee a little bit." Then in Sunday's title tilt Rea came away from an excellent stretch-and-snare of a inning-ending out limping. Knee again? No, "The runner clipped my foot, that's what that was."
But his biggest defensive save of the day, of the week really, was in the first inning as Vanderbilt had two runners ready to score with one out. A base hit or much anything there could have sent the championship game in another direction, as Commodore Conrad Gregor smashed the ball on the nose.
And directly to Rea, hard enough that it might have ripped away a lesser man's mitt. He reacted almost as fast for the third out looking at both runners and, correctly, throwing in behind the one too far off second base for the double-play force.
"That was a huge play, we needed something like that. Things kind of started falling apart for us early and it was a huge momentum swing I thought for the whole game. It kind of quieted down their offense and played a huge role the rest of the game." And in securing State's first SEC Tournament trophy since 2005.
Rea played every pitch at first base, and while not as draining as what C Mitch Slauter endured over six non-stop days all that time in the May sun took a toll on the coast kid. He dropped about five pounds, which of course he has to spare. In fact he stresses that the season playing weight has stayed steady in the 285 range, not the listed 290 or more that his coach often quotes. Needless to say there are not many men in this league of Rea's stature.
Well, maybe so in one sense. "Yeah, I hear that from a lot of guys. But really there are a lot of guys in this league that are bigger than you think they are. They get over there and are just as tall as me. Maybe not as big." No, definitely not as big.
And Mississippi State is glad to have Rea present for 2012 NCAA action. Riding with them on the bus, at that, meaning no donations to any local traffic courts this year. That last one still stings. "It was a pretty big one. I had to drive back three hours south to get it taken care of!"
As for any Bulldog fans tuned-in to tournament play, if they get caught with foot too far down on the fun pedal when Rea or anyone gets the big hit…they are on their own.