The Mississippi Braves recently held auditions for national anthem performers and mascot. Only one brave soul showed up for the latter.
Sarah Warnock/Clarion Ledger
STARKVILLE — For a veteran coach like Gary Henderson, a couple of things are expected when it comes to freshmen hitting a wall at some point of the season. First, it’s going to happen. Second, it will probably occur right around finals week.
So, breathe, Mississippi State fans. It’s only March.
The point in asking now about the proverbial wall, though, is because it has become clear that Mississippi State’s success in the SEC will be largely determined by an influx of freshman holding prominent roles. How far will the Bulldogs go? How far can four emerging freshmen position players help take them?
MSU’s pitching staff is bolstered by health and beefed up by talent compared to last year. Jake Mangum and Hunter Stovall will likely meet or surpass expectations as the leadoff man and No. 2 hitter, respectively. The wildcard on the roster is how MSU’s freshmen adjust to SEC pitching starting next weekend — and then, if they continue to play similarly to how they fared during non-conference play, how long it is sustained.
This is all worth pointing out after Mississippi State’s 5-3 win against Utah Valley on Sunday at Dudy Noble Field because it again was the Bulldogs’ freshmen bats leading the way. Freshman left fielder Rowdey Jordan went 2 for 4 with a 3-run homer in the fourth to make it 5-1. Freshman Tanner Allen was 2 for 4 with an RBI double.
Jordan has started in eight straight games, hitting ninth in the order, with a .238 average, two home runs and 11 RBIs. Allen has settled in as the team’s designated hitter, is slotted behind Stovall in the order and owns a .333/.412/.500 slash line with 11 RBIs.
More: How Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum plans to be better in 2018
MSU is relying on freshmen on the corners, too. Josh Hatcher is at first and has earned a middle-of-the-order role with his team-leading .351 batting average and three home runs. Justin Foscue secured the starting job at third base because of his defense, but his three strikeouts in 48 at-bats suggest that his .229 may have room to rise.
The Bulldogs (10-6) start SEC play Friday against No. 14 Vanderbilt after a game Wednesday against Southeastern Louisiana in Biloxi. It will be the final tune-up before a grind MSU’s freshmen aren’t used to.
“Really, just be confident,” Jordan said. “We feel like we can hit anybody. You keep your body healthy. That’d be one thing. Staying strong, working out to get prepared for a longer season. That’s the biggest thing. Mental toughness will play a big part.”
Starting freshmen in the lineup is something SEC teams try to avoid. For context, No. 6 Kentucky doesn’t start any, No. 15 Auburn has two and No. 18 LSU has one. Ole Miss started four freshmen in its lineup last season for a while, three of them struggled and the Rebels failed to play beyond the SEC tournament.
Still, is it 100 percent that MSU’s players will struggle and hit a wall at some point? Of course not, Henderson said. But the probability isn’t in the Bulldogs’ favor. And that means there’s even more of an incentive for the Bulldogs to get off to a fast start in conference play.
“We better be a month away from that wall,” Henderson said. “We still got some freshness to take advantage of it.”