“You want to live up to that challenge and see where you stand against those guys,” Rooker said. “Especially for me, seeing really high-caliber arms is what I want to do. So I’m really excited about that.”
‘Those guys’ are of course the Tiger tandem of righthander Alex Lange and lefty Jared Poche’. No SEC rotation begins with a more-honored starting pair, and few clubs in the country have it as good.
Instead of concern, Mississippi State’s top Dog honestly is excited. “That’s why you come to the SEC, to see guys like that every weekend,” said Rooker.
“Alex Lange is going to be a first-round draft pick. Jared Poche’ is one of the best pitchers really in SEC history with the wins and success he’s had for four years.”
Success also describes what Rooker has done in his two years starting at Mississippi State. For this year, spectacular serves too. Going into his final home weekend the junior first baseman is chasing the SEC’s offensive triple crown. He leads the league with a .406 batting average as well as his 20 home runs and 71 RBI.
The weekend brings his closest contender in the power and production. LSU’s Greg Deichman is right behind at 17 home runs and third in RBI with 60. All statistical totals and averages include post-season play so this race has weeks left to run for the Dog and Tiger alike.
For a program perspective Rooker is having one of the best batting years ever for a Bulldog. His score of homers is the most in a season since 1989 (22) and tied for sixth-best. Nine more runs driven-in will give Rooker a top-ten year there as well. And if he can hold at .400 or better by season’s end it will also be a top-ten tally.
The problem is…lately State’s slugger isn’t seeing a lot to swat. In just the last six games Rooker has received nine walks. That is against 16 official at-bats in the same span.
“It’s just having to become more patient. Because I’m not getting as much to hit, obviously I’m taking a few more walks.” More than a few of those have been intentional; others essentially so.
Rooker would prefer taking his cuts of course. Being walked is nothing new, either, so he’s learned at least some patience with passing. “Which is something I’ve improved on through the season. Kind of learning when to take my walks instead of trying to do too much. Take what the pitchers are giving me which a lot in the last couple of weeks has been balls.”
To be clear there have been a few cracks in the patience, as seen in a forced swing or two Sunday at Georgia when a pitch did cross the plate. Or, close enough. Rooker is just too smart and experienced a swinger though, to lose focus for frustration.
“I think I’m doing a better job with that. Then obviously guys behind me do a good job. It was Grid, now it’s Jake swinging behind me.”
Yes, in this final week of SEC season Mississippi State has made a change atop the order. Rooker himself was moved-up to #2 in March and has been there 30 games now. For the entire season CF Jake Mangum was first…
…until last night. Coach Andy Cannizaro exchanged his and SS Ryan Gridley’s assignments around. It certainly worked well against Troy in a comeback 10-8 win. So, “I think we’ll continue that approach moving forward and it’s going to pay off for our team,” Rooker said.
The real team payoff would be taking this concluding SEC series, at Tiger expense. That would be literally true in SEC and Western Division terms. LSU now sits tied for second overall (Kentucky does have the tiebreak for seeding) and one game in front of fourth-place Mississippi State. There is a scenario allowing the Bulldogs to tie for a conference title and repeat their 2016 Championship.
It begins with sweeping a LSU team which hasn’t lost a three-game set to a State squad since 1985. In fact, last year’s taking-two in Baton Rouge gave MSU its first series win in the rivalry since 2006.
Thing is, the only history on current Bulldog minds is the scheduled official celebration of a soon-to-be replaced Polk-Dement Stadium. Rooker and fellow veterans have written their own pages already including that 11th SEC crown last year and bringing Regional and super Regional ball back to Dudy Noble Field.
Both, Rooker, said, are added excitement. “Obviously it’s a big weekend from a SEC standings standpoint. It’s a big weekend from a Mississippi State standpoint being the last series at the current Dudy Noble.”
With a successful last (regular) series there is still the chance these Bulldogs and those fans could yet see a little more baseball at the old park. Mississippi State is presently outside looking in as far as updated RPI numbers show…but not so far outside that this isn’t an honest objective, either, just like repeating as conference champs or finishing first in the Western Division to earn a bye next week at Hoover.
“We know what we have to do to accomplish our goals,” Rooker said. “So we just have to take it one day at a time, try to win one game at a time. We have to do everything we can to win the Thursday game, then put that one behind us and so on.”
“We’re excited about the challenge. I think we’ve got the right group of guys in the locker room to accept the challenge and live up to it.”