For Bradford it is even more special. A year ago he had to watch from the sidelines, right arm in a sling, as Mississippi State first pulled off its remarkable SEC Tournament championship run; then came up flat at the Tallahassee Regional. Late-season surgery to fix a shoulder problem kept Bradford out of his soph-season tournament time.
Which was a bummer for all Bulldogs. After all, as a freshman Bradford was Most Valuable Player at the Atlanta Regional, batting .538 in the three State victories. Such swinging would have been helpful a year later, but now Bradford is ready to make up for that lost time offensively.
"I feel better than I have, so this weekend will be fun," he said.
If he's hitting as before that short SEC Tournament showing, it will be fun. Beginning with the big Sunday comeback at Ole Miss, Bradford was 10-of-20 in a five-game stretch with six runs scored. Such production, especially in his current sixth-slot assignment, is priceless and improves the pitches 1B Wes Rea sees in front of him; while whoever swings seventh behind him gets an RBI opportunity.
The 0-of-6 evening, and morning, against Missouri wasn't a sign of cooling-off though. Though few knew it, Bradford tweaked the left hip flexor during the South Carolina series.
"It happened Friday night. Whether hitting or pitching, I'm not really sure." He went 0-of-5 that night too, but came back with a 2-of-4 Saturday and two runs despite some gimpieness. "It was feeling good and I kind of strained it early in the Missouri game. And that one dragged-on for a while." Which is an awesome understatement, for a 17-inning grind that took four-and-a-half hours and ended the other side of midnight. With every return to centerfield the hip was nagging just that much more, but nobody was pulling Bradford from that marathon. Not that there were many options as the game ground on.
"And we used a lot of subs that game so I ended up playing the whole game! It didn't feel great the next day." Another Bradford-style understatement, and his low-key style is why there was never a complaint. "I just went about business, doing what I had to do."
Now he is back to doing what he does in final Regional practicing. Though as his coach said at Hoover, Bradford was more-or-less cleared to play by last weekend against Vanderbilt. "I thought I could have, it was just a precautionary thing to get ready and rest up for Friday. And make sure I'm 100%."
The side-story is how even in Bradford's absences the Bulldog outfield has kept up the pace. Hunter Renfroe, who took his place much of '12, had no trouble stepping over at Hoover. Even better was how veteran Demarcus Henderson filled-in just fine in rightfield for Renfroe, while either righty Derrick Armstrong or lefty Jacob Robson took over the leftfield alternation. All made plays, including several great at two rather remarkable double-offs on running gets. Henderson did it on a long run into foul ground against South Carolina, then it was Renfroe's spectacular grab-and-throw from center against Texas A&M that made everyone's highlight list.
"That's awesome, when you can stick guys in anywhere and they do things like that it's awesome," said Bradford. "It's a sign of a good team when you can move guys around and still produce and get wins." That said…you're darned right Bradford would rather be standing in centerfield, nor does it offend any of the alternates to have their proven play-maker starting regularly again. Healthy, too. "It feels good now, that's all that matters," Bradford said.
Well, that and feeling good after the last out. Getting there Friday evening with a winning margin will be a serious State challenge though. Central Arkansas is an uncomfortably familiar foe to the Bulldogs, having taken two-of-three in a March series at Dudy Noble Field. And, for that matter, a 2012 win in May. The visiting Bears aren't the least bit intimidated about this trip, nor should they be per Bradford.
"They're a good group, they really are, and we're going to have to get after it. Obviously they took two of three from us so we have to take them seriously and take care of business." Nor does Bradford put any stock in Central Arkansas' struggles mid-season that left them in the middle of the Southland Conference pack and needing a great run in the league tourney to earn this bid.
Which they did. "I'm not surprised at all, I was a little surprised they didn't play well towards the middle. But they did a good job coming back and getting in post-season."
These Diamond Dogs are on their third post-season appearance, and finally playing it on their favorite field. This is the time to press that advantage.
"I'm feeling good about it. We know what is ahead of us and we're prepared for it," said Bradford. We're ready for a battle, ready to get out there and play. It keeps you focused. That's good. And hopefully we'll keep that focus the next three-and-a-half, four weeks and win some ball games!"
Staying healthy would be another focus for Bradford as well. Just in case, he and dad, the former Diamond Dog Mike Bradford, will resume another pre-series dining practice. The order of crawfish awaits at Little Dooey's as usual.
"We'll take care of that Thursday."