"I was like I'm just going to put the ball in play and see what happens, luckily I got a big-hop ground ball." So in one day he passed Travis Chapman (327 in 1997-2000) and caught Lee at the top of the list. "It's an honor to see those guys on the list. Of course Coach Polk talks about how he likes Richard Lee better than me."
Which had the skipper explaining what he'd REALLY said was how much he had liked Lee. "Don't write that!" Polk begged a merciless media which was laughing along with Rea.
CENTER OF ATTENTION: Rea not only hit Friday but he ran, stealing a base in the eighth inning. It was his fifth theft in the last six games, and gives him 43 for his career. That ranks 7th on the all-time MSU list for steals.
And the day was notable in one other way as the fourth-year senior made his second-ever start in centerfield. The first was back on February 23, MSU's season-opener. Last week at the SEC Tournament he started both games in rightfield, and he has played as a substitute in left some this year. The previous three seasons he was full-time starter at second base, where he won All-SEC honors as a senior.
Now that he's spending time there late in his college career Rea has found the outfield life suits him just fine. "I like it. I've played the corners. I played center some in the summer, it just seems more natural. I can see the ball off the bat easier, the reads are easier, you can take deep angles and come in."
Speaking of angles, there's plenty of them at Howser Field. The dimensions sound routine enough; 320 down the rightfield line, 340 to left, and 400 to center. But all walls are straight-lines with the longer span from center to that shortish right corner that tempts batters. And, makes for interesting defensive reads for outfielders.
"It's tough in this ballpark," said Rea. "In right it's short and you run out of room and in left you can run for days. It's just getting reactions in the game."
GREAT GRAB: In center, Rea had the best view of the day's best defensive play. With a scoreless game in the top of the third, Stetson had a man on first base and one out. The runner took off on a pitch to Jeremy Cruz, who lifted a fly deep to right-centerfield. "At first I thought it was going to hit off the wall," said pitcher Chad Crosswhite. "I looked at Jeff (Flagg), I was watching Rea, and said well somebody's probably going to catch it!"
The pitcher was more optimistic than most observers who figured this would fall for two bases and the runner try for home. Rea knew he had no chance of a catch. "Jeff kept looking at me and I'm like "I'm over in the gap!" I ran up behind him to get the ball in case he missed it, but he had a good read and it slowed down and he dove and caught it."
Flagg did indeed, and did so going all-out to his right before diving and reaching with the left (glove) hand. At no time did Flagg slow to consider that he was making his first start in the field since April 29, because of back spasms. "No, plays like that you just have to react and you're not thinking about it." Even teammates weren't sure he'd snared the ball until Flagg, still prone, raised the glove and even then the Stetson coach had to go talk to the infield umpire for confirmation.
Then it was just a matter of seeing if Flagg was OK, or if the dive had hurt the back again. Flagg did get up slow and moved a bit stiffly at first. "I looked at Mitch and said is he alright?" Crosswhite said. "Mitch was like yeah, I guess!" And Flagg was indeed alright. "Hey, I made the catch, it made it hurt less!"
Flagg doesn't claim 100% status just yet. "This was my first full game since coming back. It's playable. It's not better but I'm able to play and I'm just grinding it out to see what I can do for the team." Besides, it would have been tough to keep the Jacksonville native off the field in his home state with family present. Not that he calls Tallahassee friendly territory. "This is west Florida, it's not really my neck of the wood. But my parents don't get to see me a whole lot so this is fun."
MAC ATTACKS: Senior LF Joseph McCaskill tied his career mark for base hits in a game with three Friday. All of them came at the expense of Stetson's Chris Ingoglia, something of a surprise starter in game-one. The lefthander had the stats (9-5 record, 2.98 ERA) worthy of a post-season start, but he isn't the Hatter ace.
And the Bulldogs were not exactly thrilled that they wouldn't fact SU mainstay Cory Kluber, an 11-game winner. "We kind of took offense a little bit," said McCaskill. "Then they told it was because we had a lot of lefties in the lineup, we understood that. But we just didn't know if they were doing it because they thought they could look past us to Florida State or not. Either way it worked out for us, I guess."
It certainly worked out well for McCaskill with his trio of singles. And the first time he did not hit safely he still drove in a run with his infield grounder to score State's fifth RBI. Still, McCaskill was glad when Ingoglia sat down. "He was coming at you with fastballs, they have a big ballpark at Stetson and that's how they pitch it. He figured out in a short park you can't get away with it and changed it after the first couple of innings."
STOP AND GO HOME: Mississippi State's sixth and final run came in most unusual fashion, as well as at a good time. The Hatters had rallied from 5-0 down to score three times in the top of the seventh, and the first two Dogs went down easily. Hits by DH Brian LaNinfa and Flagg had two on before SU reliever Justin Dechert wild-pitched each into scoring positions.
Then as Dechert was unwinding for a pitch to 3B Russ Sneed he simply stopped, stone-still on the mound. Everybody paused to wonder if they'd seen what they saw, before the runners were waved along on the balk. LaNinfa made it 6-3 as he touched home.
Few knew why Dechert had done that, but pitcher Crosswhite did. "I was reading his lips," he reported. "He hit his leg (with the ball hand) and that kind of threw him off. I'd never seen that."
ROAD WORK: Crosswhite knows what he'll see Saturday; a lot of ground passing under his shoes under Mississippi State's pitching-rehab program. "Tomorrow's going to be my worst day, I've got to run, lift, and run again," he explained. "And the next day is pretty bad, I'm still going to have to run."
Still the starter acknowledges that the miles go by, if not faster at least more contentedly, after a victory. So does his whole weekend. It's the classic conundrum of the series-starter, that his weekend's work is almost certainly done on the very first day. It can get a bit boring even. "But it's cool once you've had a good outing. If you don't, that's when it gets tough mentally. Now I can watch my team win."
Also, while 5.1 innings didn't look like a long starting stint it fell exactly in the 15-to-18 outs range State coaches ask. In fact when Polk left the dugout so quickly after a walk and single allowed by Crosswhite the press corps wondered aloud if the pitcher had hurt himself somehow. Not so. "I was going to take him out before that batter," said Polk. "But we got a couple more pitches for the bullpen. You can tell when a guy is gassed. 85 pitches on a day like today probably feels like 110."
It didn't seem all that hot at 80 degrees, but the humidity and still air weren't what State pitchers have gotten used to after a very dry May in Starkville. In fact a rainstorm struck an hour after the game ended, and more weather is threatening for Saturday. Besides, there's one other factor in Tallahassee that weighs on moundsmen's minds: those very reachable corners around a couple of deep gaps for balls to fall in.
"You just have to keep balls down," said Crosswhite. "I'd rather pitch at Clemson. Or at Dudy Noble."
OTHER ITEMS: Mitch Moreland's home run was his eighth of the season, making him second on the squad to C Edward Easley's 12… The Bulldogs have hit 44 longballs this season, down from last year's total of 55… Easley started his 54th consecutive game at catcher for the season… The win was Mississippi State's first-ever success in Tallahassee of any sort… Ron Polk is now 58-37 in NCAA Tournament play for his 34 seasons, 47-32 at State.