Britton Making Camp Case For Starting Status

OK, so maybe it won't necessarily help him stand out during post-scrimmage evaluations and such. Then again, having such a brightly-hued hunk of leather on the left hand can't hurt Matthew Britton's case either? "It's colorful," the middle infielder agrees.

It surely is. And if Britton has his way everyone at Dudy Noble Field on opening day will be able to spot it snagging ground balls at shortstop. He is part of the ongoing preseason competition for this position, and with less than two weeks before Mississippi State throws its first pitch of 2014 nobody has taken an obvious lead.

At the same time, none of the four middle-infield candidates can be ruled out either. So on into a new week the contest goes, with Britton increasingly optimistic about his status and chances.

"I've been feeling real comfortable in the field," he said. "And better at the plate now. Everything is clicking."

And not just as a shortstop, it needs noting. In the four-plus scrimmages played so far during preseason Britton has taken almost as many turns at his other and more-accustomed position of second baseman. Coach John Cohen's typical intrasquad script has alternated Britton and another two-way contestant working either side of the middle-base. There isn't much in the way of clues whether anyone is a sure ‘leader' at the moment.

By that same token, Britton has also acquitted himself very well at both spots defensively. Which is exactly what Cohen expected. The head coach has often labeled Britton as the best pure gloveman on the middle-infield roster, which is saying something considering who his peers have been. But getting starts last season was difficult for the same reason.

Certainly nobody was knocking all-star and by many accounts best-ever Bulldog shortstop Adam Frazier out of the lineup. And the on-base efficiency of Brett Pirtle had second base covered. Now that Frazier has moved on to professional baseball though, the job is there for somebody's taking. Or more likely several bodies since indications are Mississippi State will be mixing-and-matching their middle infielders during the early stages of the coming season.

Britton understands. "Oh yeah, all four guys are good enough to play. So it's whoever gets it going, I guess."

Both Britton and junior college transfer shortstop Seth Heck have had it going during scrimmages; with third-year sophomore Kyle Hann taking his share of turns there too. With any and all the defensive work has been sound so far and at times excellent. During Saturday's seven-inning scrimmage Heck came up with one outstanding play and another that was nigh-brilliant, playing for one squad.

With the other Britton's work didn't leap-out or anything, mostly because he got routine balls to handle. And did. Yet in previous scrimmages he also took care of more challenging chances with no dramatics needed. It how simply smooth he has looked getting over to balls, especially going to his glove-side, and delivering with boring efficiency that likely catches his coaches' eyes. This applies at both second base and short, too.

It also shows something else; how often Diamond Dog infielders have hoppers to handle. Their pitchers are producing the sort of contact Coach Butch Thompson would rather see and letting the fielders work. Britton is wholeheartedly behind that tactic and likes the scrimmaging pitching.

"Our pitchers work the bottom of the zone and get a lot of ground balls. It keeps the defense in the game."

Now, what would really get Britton into State games as a starter is showing strength with the stick. That's not been a big secret to be sure and Britton understands. Nobody is asking he or anyone else to replace Frazier's record-settings base hits total of 2013. All that is needed for now is to be a positive part of the order, and Cohen said post-fall ball he saw improvement in Britton.

"He made a big jump. The door was opened at shortstop and he has done everything he can do to try and win that job. I think the bat came alive this fall, and certainly there's never been a doubt about his arm strength and the athleticism."

Britton is expecting better from himself than the .250 average of last season too. "I've been working on my swing a lot lately. I feel like when I'm not going good I'm swinging too hard, trying to do too much. I just try to simplify things and stay smooth in the box." Improvement is showing at times. After going 0-of-3 Saturday, Britton came back Sunday with a hit in his only turn before the scrimmage was washed out after two innings.

And speaking of one hit…those there in Mississippi State's amazing 2012 SEC Tournament run will never ever forget how Britton came through with the game-wining single against LSU in the tenth inning. When he makes good contact the ball goes. The real point is Britton has more faith in his offense than before. "I feel if you're confident in both you're going to be a better player overall. If you've got it going on in the batters box it carries over and you have confidence."

Goodness knows it takes some self-assurance to wear a glove that can be spotted from anywhere on or beyond the field. "I saw it when we talked to the Wilson guys," he related. "They brought a lot of gloves. I really liked it, it caught my eye! And it felt good."

Which is good because not everyone would want to walk onto a top-tier college ball field wearing that much bright red leather. For that matter some teammates needed convincing. "O yeah, everybody is talking about how it's red and not maroon, all this. You've got to stand out, you know?" It does that. Fortunately the squad's style guru has given the go-ahead on behalf of the Bench Mobb (the second b is silent). "Yeah, I'm glad Ross approves," Britton said, kinda drily.

The approval which will matter most awaits opening weekend when Cohen and staff pick the lineups for those first four games. No, it won't be an all-season decision by any means…but seeing one's name on the first card of the campaign is special. And even more so at the prized infielding position this quartet of Dogs is chasing.

"All four middle infielders want to play shortstop," Britton agreed. Regardless, "I'm comfortable with short or second, and feel I can play both."

This week's scrimmage schedule was pending a look at the weather forecast.

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