Proud, he is; yet Rea equally insists he's only performing as expected. "It's something I take pride in, with runners in scoring position to try to get it done."
Rea certainly got it done in the College World Series opener. With Oregon State leading 4-3 in the top of the eighth inning, both DH Alex Detz and RF Hunter Renfroe reached base. A second out later Rea came up. He'd watched Beaver reliever Matt Boyd work to Renfroe and 2B Brett Pirtle, and that quick scouting came in handy even after falling behind 0-2 in the count.
"He was getting swing-and-miss. Two out, and he was probably going to go for swing-and-miss, I was fortunate enough he got it up. It was a changeup and I was able to do something with it." Specifically drove a double, Rea's second of the day, in the right-centerfield gap. Both teammates scored, Detz easily and Renfroe on a hard slide home, and the Bulldogs were ahead to stay.
Perhaps the best evaluation came from a pitcher. "Wes went up and had never seen that guy in his life, to get that big two-out hits man, that's pretty special."
Two nights later Rea came up special again, and also in an eighth inning (is a trend starting to show?). Mississippi State trailed Indiana 3-2 coming into that frame with Hoosier reliever Ryan Halstead on the hill. He'd kept the one-run lead entering back in the sixth inning, then gave up a single to Pirtle to open this eighth. The situation almost screamed sacrifice, and Rea is a capable bunter.
But the State staff trusted his hot hand of late, and the big Dog watched two balls go by before seeing something worth swinging at. He dropped it in rightfield, putting tying-runner Pirtle on third base to be scored later by LF Demarcus Henderson. Rea himself came home on a two-out single by pinch hitter Trey Porter, and it was his run that counted as the winner in a 5-4 final.
Omaha has been good to Rea in his two games, with four hits in nine chances already. In fact, combining the super regional and now Series, and Rea is hitting 8-of-16 for the last four games with five RBI and three runs scored. That includes the two-run blast over the leftfield trees at Charlottesville that keyed State's win in the title game.
Yet he claims no special credit for being, well, special. Because this is not a solo effort.
"You have (Adam) Frazier, Detz, Renfroe, and Pirtle in front of you, it makes it a little easier. You've got guys on-base almost all the time. I've just been getting lucky and having the situation and coming through."
Maybe there is some luck involved…but doing what Rea has requires a set of swinging skills too. And, he will agree, learning from lots of hard-won lessons. As well as just plain getting healthy.
Remember, he finished his redshirt freshman season with a .249 average, and .188 in SEC batting. There were times in 2012 a shoulder nerve problem, begun way back in high school in a training incident, left Rea unable to even feel the bat in his left hand. An off-season procedure finally fixed a fault left over from the original 2009 operation.
Now three years into the college career, sophomore Rea is up to a .290 average for the season…and sizzling when it really matters in the post-season. Health isn't the whole story either, because he has gotten much pickier at the plate. Most obviously, the outer-half trash Rea used to flail at is ignored now; he's walked 24 times this year, which has to infuriate pitchers missing a strike zone of that size.
Mostly though he just lays-off stuff on the outside, Rea says. "That's where you want to throw every guy, down and away. that's the toughest pitch in baseball to hit, I'd say. But I've been working really hard at it. And when you see it over and over again it's time to either make an adjustment or keep getting beat."
We now see who is getting beat; those pitchers who have to come in the swing-zone now. For that matter Rea said even the down-and-away offerings are a lot closer to the black than used to be, and he's able to make contact anyway. As he did in a clutch Series swing.
"I mean, I've just been going with what they're throwing me. Not trying to do doomuch, and it's been working out for me." Most obviously, in the settings where Mississippi State simply must have a hit. Thing is, Rea isn't swinging for himself at those pressurized points.
"Because those guys in front of me work real hard to get on base and I feel I'm there in the five-hole and it's kind of do-or-die as far as getting them in or not. A lot of the situations have been with two outs so it really has been do-or-die. And I've been getting it done. Hopefully we can keep it going."
BOUNCING AROUND: Much as his hitting has drawn post-season praise, no discussion of this Dog should overlook the defense. Omaha observers who had never seen him in-person are awed by how Rea handles the first corner; his startlingly-quick footwork around the bag, his covering balls headed to the hole, and the soft glove. Or hand, as he showed Monday in saving a short-hopped throw by Jonathan Holder for last out of the evening.
The closer was asked about his toss after the game, but Rea interrupted. "I got this one Holder! If you go back to the super regional in the last inning, that perfect feed that I have him right to the chest that he dropped, he thought it was behind him. We've been going back-and-forth was it a good feed or a bad feed. Either way he dropped it. Here we go again, bottom of the ninth, tough situation, and I guess you can say my feed was definitely better than his that he gave me to handle. We know the better athlete of the two is who caught the best ball."
All of which had media who'd covered that last-inning breakdown in Charlottesville chuckling, as did Holder too. State won both times, after all. Wednesday, Rea was in a more charitable mood.
"Yeah, that's a tough play sometimes for a pitcher. It seems so easy but you get out there and it's difficult play. We work on it a lot, you see how many balls we get at practice and you get a lot of bad throws. That happens every day, we take care of it in practice, and it turns into an easy play in a game."
Rea's sense of humor can be dry, but like his hitting he has timing. At Sunday's practice after he and Holder perfectly executed the infamous three/one cover play, he called out "dog pile!" Still this is a serious student of the game. During a Wednesday batting practice drill, where pitchers were to cover a pretend bunt and throw, as a ball was hit Rea shouted to wait, "we don't have a third baseman!"
"That shows his awareness and understanding of the game," Cohen said. Though, the coach added, "He also knows we have to execute that play eight times in a row, or everybody runs."
Also, as this season has played out Rea has taken upon himself some coaching responsibilities during games. As in, when something isn't going well or right for Bulldog pitchers, it is the first baseman strolling over for a short comment or calm-down remark or whatever.
"I guess its from being a pitcher back in my heyday. I kind of know the situations and what is going on in Coach Cohen's and Coach Thompson's heads when something is going wrong or anything like that. So I kind of feel I know what I can tell the pitcher without them having to make a mound visit, hopefully settle them down or get them back in the zone or anything like that."
Just consider it another example of Rea's remarkable sense of timing, whether with bat or glove or word. Because after all, for the 2013 Diamond Dogs this is what they've played all year for.
"Yeah, that's what I've been saying. Take pride in the situation."