Simple, right? Just step into the batter’s box every time looking to hit something hard and far…and at the same time don’t take chances hacking at anything less than best. Perfectly simple.
OK, back to being serious. Because it is a serious situation Mississippi State (18-9, 2-4 SEC) is in as they prepare to host Auburn (15-10, 1-5). There’s an undeniable urgency for both squads that gives this late-March series some late-May stakes.
If the Bulldogs are to hit their way out of a tough conference start, it will help to get more—but not too—aggressive swings from Humphreys. His two-homer and five-RBI Sunday helped Mississippi State salvage a split at Kentucky. His reward, is the reserved parking slot closest to the locker room door this week.
A small and symbolic thing, sure, but…“I’d love to keep that parking spot the rest of the year!”
That, or turn it over to a variety of Bulldog batters who follow Humphreys’ recent lead. In six league games the sophomore has hit .409 with a couple of doubles to go with the dingers and two more walks. He’s also scored five times.
It all goes back to that indefinable line of being patiently aggressive. Not passively, patiently.
“Just really trying to stay under control, and keep swinging the bat,” said Humphreys, who admits he has backed off more than necessary. “A lot of times I catch myself taking too many pitches I should be swinging at.”
But when he attacks those good pitches, watch out. Defenses certainly have been. That brings up the frustrating aspect of Humphreys’ season so-far. His average is still .279 on the entire year, but not for lack of contact. There likely isn’t a Dog in the order who has seen more well-struck baseballs end up in gloves.
The way Humphreys has struck the ball is why Coach John Cohen has stayed with the right-handed hitting outfielder for the last 14 games. Humphreys has hit safely in 11 of them including the last eight, a stretch that produced 13-of-30 results. And as the coach noted, while Humphreys was 1-of-4 in Tuesday’s game, it was another case of hard-hits balls directly to defenders.
To his credit Humphreys didn’t and doesn’t let such results get to him. “I mean, I didn’t feel I was hitting terrible at the beginning of the year. I just felt I couldn’t find the hole or anything. The guys were encouraging.”
Maybe now it’s Humphreys who can encourage most of the guys. Even after playing at cozy Kentucky, the Bulldogs still are batting just .260 in SEC play to .324 for opponents. If not for 36 walks and five plunkings Mississippi State would struggle even more to score runs against conference pitching. Or to use another measure, as well as Humphreys has swung it these opening series those five RBI Sunday are also his total with a lack of drive-inable Dogs at the time.
None of this shakes Humphreys’ faith in the 2015 squad. “We’ve got a lot of guys on the team that we can all hit. And a lot of guys have struggled throughout the year. Just kind of keep going and know it’s going to come. But it just takes time.”
Time might be a luxury Mississippi State doesn’t have, odd as that sounds after just two weekends. But a 2-4 start has already shaved most of whatever margin a SEC season allows, right here at the beginning. The Bulldogs don’t just need to win a series period, a sweep might be necessary when looking at the upcoming opponents.
The Tigers (15-10, 1-5 SEC) are in the second season with Coach Sunny Galloway in a major rebuild. Auburn’s last NCAA Tournament appearance was 2010, and they were one of the two teams missing last year’s SEC Tournament at 28-28, 10-20. Unlike MSU, though, they’ve already played a couple of ranked league contenders. Auburn was swept by Texas A&M and lost the Vanderbilt series.
Statistically there isn’t a lot to separate the squads in hitting, pitching, fielding, anything. The Bulldogs have hit more homers at 13 to 10. But six of State’s longballs came in one weekend at Kentucky and still didn’t win that series. The aspect where Dogs have been better is watching pitches, with 155 walks to 101 and fewer strikeouts. In fact State is 2nd in the NCAA at drawing walks, and 9th in hit-by-pitch too.
But then all the free baserunners hasn’t led to big innings. State averages one stranded runner every inning so far this season, overall and SEC alike. Certainly there have been some struggles with pitching along the way, but the fundamental fact remains that this offense must produce more and better. Or just plain more.
At the same time stress is the fastest way to blur that fine line. Humphreys repeats, the bats are here for State to succeed. Especially in the middle-order with C Gavin Collins getting healthy, 1B Wes Rea showing a sharp eye at the plate—he’s first in the league in walks—and himself putting balls in gaps at last.
“If we can all get going about the same time it would be a really fun lineup. I think we’ve got a chance,” Humphreys said. The trick is not letting a slump or slow start get inside the batting helmet.
“Just know you’ve had success in the past and that it’s in there. You’re here for a reason and the coaches believe that. That’s really all you can do, keep pushing.”
It would be remiss to miss the other side of Humphreys’ game. He spent the freshman year as a backup third baseman, then moved to the outfield last fall. While there are still the occasional tough read on a high fly or something like it, Humphreys looks more and more at-home every week.
“I feel very comfortable. I just think I’ve got to accept the role that some games I’ll be out in left and some games I’ll DH, and who knows what’s going to happen?” Oh, and Humphreys does not mind situations when Cohen wants a lefthander at the plate, or a more experienced defender in the field.
All that really matters is turning things around before April arrives. And by the way, Humphreys has had some success against Auburn. He only played in one of three road wins last year, but it was a good game; 3-of-5 with two runs. A repeat-sweep would be just what this team needs.
“I think it is a big weekend. We need to go out there and just play each day like it’s our last game. But this weekend is definitely important for the rest of the season, getting back on the right track.”
Game times are 6:30 Friday, 2:00 Saturday, 1:30 Sunday with on-line viewing by SEC Network-Plus. State’s weekend pitching trio is intact for another series, beginning with RHP Preston Brown (3-2, 3.77), then RHP Austin Sexton (3-1, 3.09) and LHP Vance Tatum (3-0, 3.26). Auburn expects to start an all-righthanded rotation of Cole Lipscomb (3-0, 2.19) Friday, then come back with workhorse Keegan Thompson (4-2, 4.10) and Dalton Rentz (1-0, 3.43).