Meaning, the transition from John Cohen to Andy Cannizaro hasn’t dramatically changed how the Diamond Dogs go about preparing for the new season. Outfielder Rooker, himself an old Dog as a junior and two-year veteran, sees no need to change the basics, either.
“It’s about giving our best effort,” he summarizes.
“No matter who the coach is the atmosphere is going to be the same. Where we play hard, we compete every day. We compete with each other in practice then we go out and try to win the game by playing hard.”
So, as Mississippi State baseball counts down to Friday’s opening act, the in-club competition continues. Yes. Even for Rooker. This preseason all-star candidate, the returning rightfielder and proven producer in the middle of the batting order, competes as if his job is at stake daily.
Because it is.
Maybe not Rooker’s 2017 job. New Coach Cannizaro is counting on Rooker and fellow outfielder Jake Mangum for both on-field production and locker room leadership. They can be counted on to deliver.
No, the job Rooker is kinda competing for from now on…is at the next level. He watched a dozen teammates off the 2016 SEC Champions club take their games and gloves to professional baseball. He could have done the same as a 21-year-old at the time.
Instead Rooker (who turned 22 in November) is taking advantage of being a junior and having another negotiating season ahead. How well he can negotiate this June does depend on what happens between opening day and the last out.
Which, if Rooker has his way, will be on the opponent. In Ameritrade Park. This is why he came back as much as any post-State ambitions. “Personally, I had a lot more to accomplish at the college level. Again, my goal is to make it to the big leagues, not to get drafted.
“So coming back and having another year of development was a big key for me. And as a team, the way last year ended left a sour taste.” As in, reaching the super regional round only to drop a couple of tight home games with eventual runners-up Arizona. All Dogs watching the ’16 College World Series were seeing themselves in the championship round.
It’s the same vision carried over into this season.
“We have the talent to do that,” Rooker said. “The big thing, we have a chance to make a run and make it to Omaha.”
If—when?—the Diamond Dogs do get back to the title tournament, it will be with Cannizaro at skipper. By now all college baseball knows that Cohen targeted this rising star of the profession even before being named athletic director. The wisdom of this choice was verified within minutes of Cannizaro stepping into the Dudy Noble Field locker room to meet his new team.
Everything since then has reinforced an enthusiastic club welcome.
“He’s been really hands on with everything we do, whether it’s hitting, defense,” Rooker reports. “He’s been with the pitchers some.” The coach does cover lots of daily ground, yet practices and scrimmages are structured just that way. The pace is fast, there are few lulls, per Rooker.
“Which is nice as a player. You don’t waste a lot of time and get done what you need to get done.”
What is Rooker getting done this preseason? Working on defense for sure, so there is no need to make late-game defensive switches. Offensively, well, let’s just relate that Rooker and Cannizaro are of mutual mind.
Go up. See it. Hit it.
“I’ve always been an aggressive hitter, I swing at the first pitch a lot. It’s a good pitch to hit. So my approach won’t change that much. It’s just kind of a mindset as an offensive unit. We’re going to be ones to set a tone in the game.”
Rooker had a solid soph season at .324 with a team-leading 11 home runs and 54 RBI. Now he doesn’t have the ‘protection’ of Gavin Collins and Jack Kruger in the order. But, Rooker isn’t worried about getting pitched-around.
There are younger Bulldog batters who will swing big bats.
“Cole Gordon can hit some home runs, he’s one of the strongest players I’ve been around. Tanner Poole is going to hit a lot of extra base hits whether its doubles or home runs. And I think Ryan Gridley is going to surprise with how much power he has, he’s going to sneak some out of the yard.”
Along that line, with a good start to the schedule these Bulldogs should sneak back up into the rankings. It baffles, maybe infuriates, fans that the defending champ of the best league isn’t rated highly or at all.
These Diamond Dogs aren’t exactly insulted, though. Rooker knows the ’17 score. “See, national polls are based around guys they know are coming back.” Those pollsters know about Mangum and Rooker; they are curious about Konnor Pilkington; and have heard about solid recruiting the past couple of seasons.
Beyond that, they want to be impressed. Rooker expects this squad to.
“Thing is, we have really good players coming back. It’s just people don’t know about them yet. And we’ve got guys that are hungry to prove themselves.”
When they do, well, it really will be the same old game again for Mississippi State.