Because if a less-than-full-strength Hunter Stovall can celebrate a return to action with a two-hit evening, well, what may that bode for this Diamond Dog freshman during NCAA season?
“Right now, 90, 95%,” is how Stovall graded himself following Thursday’s SEC Tournament game. This, after he’d gone 2-of-4 against Louisiana State pitching.
“It felt great,” Stovall said. “I’ve been sitting in the dugout, waiting for my opportunity. I just wanted to get out there and play.”
Stovall’s last action had been April 28 at Alabama. Mid-way of the Thursday evening game running out a grounder he banged his knee into a Tide player at first base. The official diagnosis was a hyperextended knee, though Stovall said there was a cracked leg bone involved too.
Fortunately the initial projection of 4-to-6 weeks was pessimistic as there was no tears. Within a week Stovall was practicing. Slowly. By the last regular season series he was practicing just about as usual with a brace supporting the knee just in case.
He did the running, the leg curls, the lifts, all that sort of rehab stuff. Straight sprints, “It was not terrible,” Stovall said. “I could play through it but I feel it. Other than getting left-and-right it’s fine.”
Stovall could have played against Arkansas, maybe even a week earlier at Auburn. Mississippi State wasn’t taking any chances.
“It was a slow process. But it did happen a lot faster than I or anybody else was expecting. So I’m happy about that.” He was even happier to see his name in Thursday’s starting lineup for State’s second game at Hoover. Though senior 2B John Holland has played the position well, Cohen liked getting another right-handed bat in the order against LSU. It obviously worked.
“I knew my opportunity was going to come at some point his SEC Tournament so I was trying to get myself ready and prepared for that moment.”
Obviously Stovall prepared very well. It did not hurt, so to speak, that the weekend before his injury Stovall had played in Mississippi State’s won series at LSU. The second baseman went 3-of-12 that trip with three runs and three RBI. On the final day he was 2-of-4. So Tiger pitching prep was simple enough.
And despite missing a dozen whole games, Stovall’s plate approach had not rusted. In the second inning he walked into the box, looked at a Jared Poche’ pitch, then came after another.
And hit it safely into the outfield. Safe to say his freshman aggression had not mellowed with down-time.
“I’ve always had the mentality of going up there, I’m getting to the plate looking to hit the ball. If the ball is in the strike zone I’m swinging. I wasn’t going to try to take any time, I was ready to get that first hit out of the way and get going.”
His defensive evening didn’t begin as smoothly. In the second inning a Tiger bouncer took a bit of an odd bounce and Stovall over-ran it just enough for the ball to get through his feet. It was ruled a single so Stovall did not have to suffer a return-game error. And by coincidence the next two Tigers also hit grounder his way.
Result: two routine outs. Stovall finished with three assists and two putouts to his account. There was the one play he and RF Jake Mangum wanted back, though. After State cut the deficit to 4-2 in their half of the seventh inning, a one-out LSU fly ball went down the rightfield line and began curling back in.
Stovall chased it all the way out, then was called-off at the last instant by Mangum. The ball nicked the outfielder’s glove for what was ruled a two-base error and LSU used the break to create a two-run attack and retain control.
Just baseball, Stovall said. “It was a late call, we were both there.” Both being two true freshmen, part of this 2016 rookie class that has been key to Mississippi State’s SEC Championship season. Stovall hasn’t had quite the same impact as his classmate offensively with a .244 average. But he’s proved a first-class second baseman, has worked the outfield…and in an early-season pinch even stepped in as catcher with four starts. Naturally he’s a capable pinch-hitter for matchups and baserunner to boot, 6 of 6 in steal tries.
That sort of versatility is good at any point. But with smaller rosters it can be priceless in tournament time. Cohen is delighted to get this Dog back in the pack.
“He hasn’t been out there in a long time,” the coach said. “He got some hits, he made some plays for us defensively. He’s a guy that’s got to be a factor for us to do well in the post-season.”