Renfroe, Bulldogs Priming For Regional Run

He had to expect the honors were coming. Still being officially announced as first-team All-Southeastern Conference is a welcome reward to Hunter Renfroe. "I'm glad to be on that team, I'm pretty excited about it."

Selection by conference coaches to their top all-league squad was just the latest recognition to come Renfroe's way. In fact over an eight-day stretch his name was called, or listed, three times. First was presentation of the 2013 Boo Ferriss Trophy, in acknowledgement of the Diamond Dog outfielder as the best college ballplayer in Mississippi. Then came release of the SEC's All-Tournament Team, a media vote, with Renfroe and SS Adam Frazier making the squad.

"I thought it was very special to me," Renfroe said of that one. Now he goes down in the league's records as All-SEC for 2013, and a first-teamer. Not that anyone was surprised to see the SEC's top slugger through both the regular season and the conference tourney make that cut of course.

The real experts showed just how special Renfroe is. In the same announcement he--and again Frazier—were named to the SEC's All-Defensive team. It is a full-season recognition to be sure, but the whole league got to see something really special last week at Hoover. With Mississippi State holding a two-run lead on Texas A&M, Renfroe first robbed a base hit with a great running get from centerfield; then he shot down the runner who'd led away from first with a rocket-arm throw for the week's finest double-play.

Thrilling as that catch-and-throw were, what has Diamond Dog fans more excited headed into NCAA Tournament play is how Renfroe's bat is coming back to life. He didn't have a great hitting SEC tourney, at 6-of-22 for the four games. Yet this is an uptick from the slump which began in mid-April.

Heading to Hoover, Renfroe had gone 1-of-20 in the previous five regular-season games. This was the nadir of an extended stretch though where he was hitting .215 through twenty games, with just 10 RBI. Slumps are relative to players of course; what made this one remarkable for the rough reasons was how in the preceding 24 games Renfroe was nothing short of remarkable himself. He hit .450 in that stretch with 32 RBI. It was in fact that span of success which effectively sealed Renfroe's status as All-SEC, as well as a Golden Spikes Award contender.

So when he got a couple of hits in the SEC Tourney marathon with Missouri, and closed out with a 3-of-5 showing and two RBI against Vanderbilt, maybe it signaled a return to all-star form. Not, Renfroe says, that he's changed anything for better or worse or whatever.

"I've felt good all season on my swing and my approach at the plate. It's just kind of got frustrating to me," he said. "Pitchers pitching around me a little bit, swinging at bad pitches and their pitches they wanted me to swing at. I was aggravated at myself for doing that. Now I'm back in the groove, I'm swinging the bat really well."

What needs noting is how fine-line close Renfroe has been to breaking back out. Even in the worst stretches making contact wasn't an issue, it was how much and which direction. At his best Renfroe drives balls; when he's off just a tiny bit the ball goes up in the air for easy catches or bounces to second and first basemen. There's a pretty basic formula, he explained. "All it is, if they throw a changeup or slider I'm usually pulling it, and a fastball I'm going to hit it up the middle or right side. That's when my swing is usually the best.

"Then when you see me hitting sliders or something like that to the right side, pop-up flare, I'm usually off my rhythm. But other than that when my swing is at the best I'm hitting fastballs and pulling sliders. And you saw the last game, I hit a lot of sliders and fastballs up the middle." When Renfroe does, it's with sufficient spark that unless the middle infielders are tight to the bag the ball will bounce through.

It is the big drives that folk pay to see though, and 15 times this season Renfroe has left the yard. Or yards. In fact his best blast of the season was a no-doubt shot to center-leftfield at Pearl's Trustmark Park, showing exactly what he's capable off at full-contact. Such shots are why opponents pitch him very, very carefully…or not at all. Maybe, one wonders, if all the pitch-arounds contributed to the slump? Or if all the edge-nibbling set him up for a couple of very, very close called strike-threes on the closest corner at Hoover, both of which produced a raised eyebrow and glance at the ump from a frustrated Bulldog.

To his veteran credit, the junior Renfroe has responded with poise and gone about his business on the field. Off it?

He just kept doing what he's done since arriving at State, working on the swing and sticking to his strengths. "I swung the bat I thought really well this SEC Tournament, I just didn't hit the ball on the barrel. And it wasn't due to anything but my timing." Obviously some pitchers and league coaches thought differently by recognizing Renfroe as all-tourney. And even he admits yeah, getting some balls to fall and/or get through is an encouraging sign at Regional time.

"It was a confidence builder, it's what I really needed. You know, me and Wes (Rea) were picking around in the hotel room, the whole time I was like I gotta get hits, I gotta get hits, get me some hits! He was like, just calm down, you're going to be fine." Those who know the imperturbable Rea can recognize that wise advice to the self-admitted hyper Renfroe.

And happily the hits started coming. "It was very much a confidence builder to see that," Renfroe repeated. "So it was good."

‘Good' is also one description of the three Regional guests assigned to Starkville. ‘Great' is a better word for the full field, which outside analysts are calling the most competitive of the 16 first-round events this weekend. It begins for the Bulldogs with an opponent that took—not stole, just plain took—a weekend series at Dudy Noble Field back in March. When the Regional field flashed up and Renfroe saw Central Arkansas as the #4 seed…

"It was kind of like, really?" he said. Yes, really. The UCA Bears are back in town for a third trip in two seasons, having won an single game towards the end of 2012 and taking two-of-three this year. "They've had our number so far," Renfroe agreed. Of course Central Arkansas pitchers could say the same of him. In that weekend Renfroe batted 6-of-12 with three runs and three RBI. In fact the Bulldogs out-hit UCA for the series, but did not pitch as well as hoped. The weekend began when then-ace LHP Jacob Lindgren was literally knocked out of the game on the second at-bat by a line drive off his knee, and the interruption rippled through the rest of the series.

That was eleven weeks ago. So there are plusses and minuses to a rematch now, per Renfroe. Sure, there is live scouting material on the Bears from both seasons. "Thing is, we played them in the first of the season. At the start of the season they could have one scouting report on us, and now they have a totally different one. They could pitch completely different, backwards, and have different pitchers. We have no idea what they're going to be throwing at us or what they have."

By the same token, UCA will face a different Bulldog team; one that has gone through the ups, downs, and back-ups of a long season. Whether or not Mississippi State is ‘peaking' at this point will only be proven by playing. Renfroe takes the positive post-Hoover view. "We've been playing really good ball lately. Hitters just crushing balls, pitchers doing well. I think we'll do really well."

"This is a big series, a big Regional, great teams in it. If we don't play our best, we'll lose. If we do, we'll run through it and we'll be a great team coming out in the end."

Which would likely bring another set of all-tournament honors for Renfroe or any of his teammates.

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