Hot Offense Brings State to Brink of Championship

They may not have the highest offensive average in the league. They certainly must be the hottest offense in the league. Brent Rooker believes he knows why, too.

“I was talking to Coach Ming (Nick Mingione) about this yesterday,” Rooker said. “We’ve got nine guys in the lineup and every single one thinks that they’re the best hitter on the team.”

There you have it. The Diamond Dogs are battering SEC pitching these days because they think they are the best batters. Individually, that is. Wait, does that sound like selfish swinging?

Nah, call it pride. Then call it pressure to produce, to back up the attitude with a base hit. And it’s working very, very well.

“Everybody walks up there with that kind of confidence you’re going to produce,” explained rightfielder/DH Rooker. “Because there’s internal competition.”

These intrasquad scrambles to prove the best has made Mississippi State’s offense maybe the SEC’s best at the moment. Yes, Texas A&M still holds the all-season edge in average, .314 to .312. But the Bulldogs are one big weekend away from taking away that lead, maybe.

Just as they are one great big weekend away from taking the Southeastern Conference championship. Mississippi State (18-9) begins its home series with Arkansas tied atop the Western Division with the Aggies (also 18-9). While Texas A&M does own the direct tie-break after sweeping State in April, the only lost weekend of this season, the Bulldogs know how close that crown is.

Sweep the struggling Razorbacks, and get just a little help from (irony) Ole Miss in College Station along with LSU against visiting Florida, and they will be presented that 2016 Champions trophy next week in Hoover. There are other scenarios but this is the cleanest and quickest.

“Yeah, we know what we have to do,” said Rooker. “And that’s go out there and win three games.”

The gameplan for winning SEC series, much less sweeps as in the last two weekends, hasn’t changed. Get good-to-great starting pitching, match the right relievers late, make enough defensive plays, and get sufficient scoring support.

The thing is, of late offense has become as much a tone-setter as the armed forces. A pretty good hitting team in mid-season has turned torrid at the end. Bulldogs have double-digit hits in the last five games (with a .389 club average), and even if run production doesn’t always follow just the parade of base-reachers and -runners has broken opposing staffs. And, boosted the confidence of State’s own starters.

All the while, with a relentless internal competition. It’s good-natured, Rooker (.333, 7 homers, 43 RBI) stresses.

But it’s real, too.

“You know, we’re all friends, we want to out-do the guy in front of us and behind us. Because we’re competitive people. We have fun with each other and we work well together as a unit, for sure.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that are just really good hitters, have really good approaches, and take good swings. So if we keep that up we’re going to be tough to beat.”

Yes he said ‘we’. Rooker still insists much of this late-season success comes from ‘me’ mindsets at the plate. Outfielder Jake Mangum is setting the pace with his .405 average. First baseman Nathaniel Lowe is well-back in second place at .361 ahead of catcher/DH Jack Kruger at .352.

Rooker himself is tied with outfielders Reid Humphreys and Jacob Robson at .333. For perspective, all of these averages would have led the 2015 team where Robson finished on top at .324.

The RBI battle is even tighter. Lowe has 45, Humphreys 44, Rooker his 43, and so on.

Maybe as that movie line went, there can be only one. One Dog on top of the stat sheet. Being ‘best’ isn’t necessarily a number though. And yes, for the record…

“Absolutely, I think I’m the best hitter on the team!” Rooker said. “Nate Lowe think he’s the best hitter on the team. Gavin Collins thinks he’s the best. One-through-nine everybody in our lineup has the most confidence to go to the plate, and that’s allowed us to be successful.”

Thing about championship chases and stretch runs though, is success can be fragile. For all their individual confidence Bulldog batters and all teammates as well know they must approach Arkansas with caution.

The Razorbacks (7-20, 26-26) may be flirting with missing the SEC Tournament. They almost certainly must win their way through Hoover to have any NCAA Tournament interest. It only makes these visiting Hogs that much more dangerous. Plus, a ten-loss streak means odds are Arkansas is due to beat somebody, soon.

“Their record is definitely not indicative of what kind of team this is,” Rooker said. “We know that. They’ve got a lot of talent top to bottom. They’ve got a lot of returners from last year’s College World Series team. They’re right on the edge of turning it around and being a really, really good team.”

Mississippi State already is a really good baseball team, a club so close to achieving what no Dogs have done since 1989. That in itself could distract any ball club. Knowing their own success and a little outside aid can clinch an outright SEC championship?

That could really risk focus. Or it would if this Bulldog bunch wasn’t intent on finishing strong for themselves, individuals and ball club alike.

“We’re just going to go out there and do what we’ve done all year,” said Rooker. “That’s compete as hard as we can. Play for each other, pick each other up. It’s just having fun playing together and being around each other. That’s what we keep doing. And we have enough talent that we play loose, we play under control, we have fun doing it, and we’re going to win some games.”

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