CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT: The SEC’s triple-crown chase by Bulldog Brent Rooker is down to two categories and probably just one. Mississippi State’s junior first baseman should have the batting average title locked up. Even though he fell below .400 during the past two weekends, Rooker still at .395 has a healthy lead.
The second-best swinger, Auburn’s Jonah Todd at .376, is through. Both Tristan Pompey and Evan White of Kentucky are tied for third at .368 as they play at Louisville.
It’s a bit more competitive in RBI where Rooker owns 82. He is seeing his closest competitor directly though as LSU’s Greg Deichmann brings 69 ribbies to the home field tournament. Also, Texas A&M’s Braden Shewmake and Kentucky’s Riley Mahan are both still playing with 67.
But if Rooker is to be denied the first SEC batting triple crown since 1984, and only the second-ever in league records, it is in home runs. He did swat out a pair in the Hattiesburg Regional and his 23 so far make the fifth-best season ever by a Bulldog. It helps that Arkansas’ Chad Spanberger is done with 20.
But here again comes Deichmann, with 19 and playing on his field with the friendly fences.
Of course the one SEC player ever to win the unofficial triple crown was also a Bulldog. That was Rafael Palmeiro back in 1984, his marvelous sophomore season.
Rooker certainly should add a bit of program history by following Jake Mangum’s 2016 batting title and giving Mississippi State back-to-back batting crowns for the first time.
STATE’S BIG STICK: For the record, Rooker uses a 34/31 size bat. Brand? Easton. Needless to note, it is not the one he began this record-setting season swinging. All those home runs, not to mention his school record 30 doubles, took a toll even on the best metal.
Rooker said he began the year with an all-white bat, but not something assigned. “I found it in the closet in Palmeiro Center, actually.” It turned out to by a lucky discovery.
“I started hitting with it and it felt the best of any bats I’d swung to that point. So I used that for as long as it lasted.” Lasted, as in to the point one side was so flattened and the end practically pointed to be unsafe. That’s assuming it passed an umpire inspection, anyway.
“So I had to retire it and moved on to the black and gray one. It’s just a different version of the white one, a little more end-heavy. Then that one the cap popped off. I moved on to another black, blue, gray one that looks the same, just a little different cap but still 34.
“And the new one came out, which is white-black-gold one and I think that’s my favorite one yet. I’ve been using that since the mid-week before LSU.”
Hmmmm. Which means, Rooker has hit just three home runs with this particular stick? Then again when he went-yard at Hattiesburg as State swept consecutive ‘twinbills’ it counted more than most shots. There may be a bit of luck in this one too. Arguably Rooker’s most important hit of the whole season was his pop-fly that managed to fall fair and between three Eagles for a two-run single in the do-or-done finale with Southern Mississippi.
METAL MEN: Rooker said he has tried all the other available brands furnished State; Louisville Slugger, DeMarini, even the infamous adidas bats. He just likes the Easton best, and who is to argue with results?
Interestingly, just in time for the super regional Mississippi State received six bats from Marucci to try out. These went against the, ummm, grain of recent bat fashion trends. Instead of flashy and splashy colors, these bats are the color of yes wood. Complete with mock grain in fact…though it’s doubtful they must be held in the right direction to avoid shattering or anything.
A few Bulldogs did give them a batting practice test Friday. Most notably Mangum, which also seems curious. The outfielder came on strong at Hattiesburg, going 8-of-18 in the last four games…all wins by no coincidence. But Mangum isn’t married to one particular style of stick and seemed to swing this one well enough in the cage to please his coach. Fellow outfielder Tanner Poole was giving it a try as well.
So, then. With today’s bats so tightly regulated in design and material to be so much the same, can a batter really tell a difference? Rooker should be well-qualified to judge.
“You think you can. I don’t really know how much of it is a placebo and how much is real. There are bats to me that feel different when they come off. They’re weighted differently obviously which is a thing you can feel.
“But as far as the performance and how much you can feel, it’s pretty minimal. But, it’s a psychological thing that you can feel more comfortable in the box with one bat than another.” And a comfortable batter is a dangerous batter.
Along that line, did Rooker consider take a few cage-cuts with the newest style of stick. Nope. Not at all.
“If it was early in the season, I might. But being where I am, in the position we are, I don’t feel like making a change. I’m pretty comfortable with what I’ve got going.”
VIEW FROM THE MOUND(SMAN): Rooker of course is up for all the national awards. He already won one of them as Collegiate Baseball tabbed him their Player of the Year. Next come the biggest prizes, as Rooker is a semifinalist for both the Golden Spikes and the Dick Houser Trophy given to the nation’s top player.
The happiest pitcher in the SEC is one who doesn’t have to face Rooker. Not unless someday Konnor Pilkington and squares-off with his to-be-former teammate on a professional field. Pilkington is a year away from the Major League Draft, while Rooker could hear his name as early as Monday evening in the first round. That’s if he and team aren’t busy playing a rubber game, to be sure.
Anyway, Pilkington has seen from his own pitching perspective how Rooker has developed from a good SEC hitter with power potential to potentially the best college player around. If there is one thing that has made the difference…
“I feel he’s really grown up (not) swinging at the slider in the dirt,” Pilkington said. “That’s one of the major things from his last season to this season. Last year every slider in the dirt he’d swing over the top of it. Now he’s laying off of that, and when they throw a get-me-over slider he’s hitting it 400 feet. He’s really seeing the ball well, too.”
Good enough to more than double his home run output, from 11 to 23; and exactly double his doubles so far. Not that Rooker’s .578 sophomore slugging was taken lightly. It’s just that his current .827 is stratospheric and harks back to the ‘nuclear’ bat era.
“Brent is awesome,” Pilkington said. “He’s got so many honors this year, he’s the best player in the SEC. Having somebody like that is huge for a team like this year, a young team with somebody to come out and have a stand-up year. Right before this draft, too, it’s awesome."