February 15, 2013 2:24:01 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Statistics don't lie.
This saying has inspired the most excited members of the Mississippi State University baseball team -- the nine players coach John Cohen will write in the lineup starting this afternoon against Portland University. Those nine players and the returnees from the 2012 team on the bench will no longer have to see or hear about their production at the plate last season.
"Last year everybody knows the offense really wasn't there but I think this year it is," MSU junior shortstop Adam Frazier said. "That kind of brings that balancing factor with our pitching staff this year that we needed pretty bad last year."
USA Baseball announced Thursday afternoon Frazier and junior right fielder Hunter Renfroe were named to the watch list for the 2013 Golden Spikes Award, the honor for the nation's top amateur baseball player.
Last season MSU finished the regular season 40-24 despite being near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in batting average (11th, .251), slugging percentage (12th, .333), runs scored (9th, 287) and total bases (10th, 694).
"I don't know if it's about hearing the criticism so much as just wanting to get better as a player from a pride standpoint," MSU sophomore first baseman Wes Rea said. "Individually you just don't like seeing terrible stats. The players are ready to put it on display."
While the starting position battles are considered fewer this season with eight returning starters from last year's SEC Tournament championship team returning to campus, the lineup options for MSU as they open the 2013 season against Portland are so much more viable than the 2012 campaign.
Last season, Wes Rea had to play 58 games through a cyst injury in his shoulder that would on occasion make him unable to feel the bat at all in his right arm. Junior outfielder C.T. Bradford made two attempts at returning following a severe shoulder injury and junior third baseman Daryl Norris played most of the 45 games with a severe knee injury last season.
"We feel like all we need is there now and it makes people like myself or even Adam Frazier not be content with our spots," Rea said. "That is exactly what gets your team better. That's what gets you to the College World Series in Omaha."
At third base, Norris is expected to get a chance at a majority of starts after hitting .400 in late March last year before fouling a ball off his knee and fracturing his knee cap. The former Gatorade player of the year in Alabama and as the Alabama Sports Writers Association Mr. Baseball for 2010 out of Farihope (Ala.) High School finished 2012 with a .273 batting average and third on the team in RBIs with 25.
Norris has been challenged by redshirt freshman Nick Flair, incoming freshman Kyle Hann and junior college transfer Alex Detz at the hot corner position of third base. Flair, who was drafted by Pittsburgh out of high school, sat out the 2012 season after suffering a severe shoulder injury before in preseason camp. Hann, from Ontario, Canada, was a three-time member of the Canadian Junior National Team and had signed with Oklahoma State University before a coaching change allowed him out of his National Letter-of-Intent.
"Kyle Hann is certainly someone who's very capable at third base," Cohen said. "He's a really talented defender. He's still figuring out his swing, and when you face our pitching staff every day, it causes a lot of young guys to have to try and figure out their swing."
Behind whoever is at third base is another positional battle as left field has the chance to be occupied by a speed threat whoever Cohen chooses to write in the lineup. Between returning outfielder Demarcus Henderson, incoming freshman Jacob Robson and junior college transfer Derek Armstrong, MSU has its three fastest base runners competing for that spot.
"We brought in two guys in Robson and Armstrong that can just absolutely fly so whether it's starting or pinch running or defense late in a game, they'll do that well immediately," Rea said.
Henderson came on late in 2012 to earn a spot on the SEC All-Tournament team that the Bulldogs won in Hoover, Ala.
The other new face in the lineup is likely to be at second base where junior college transfer Brett Pirtle has the chance to replicate the athleticism and offensive prowess he showcased at Panola College in Texas last year. Pirtle may see some of his time given to returnee Matthew Britton as the Cullman, Ala., native is still considered the one of the best defensive infielder on the team but will have to improve on his .177 batting average in 2012.
"Brett Pirtle is somebody who's kind of emerged as the guy whose entire game probably puts him in the forefront right now," Cohen said. "The question with Matthew is the offensive side of it, can he get on base enough? Certainly he's a great runner, and he's somebody who can be a base-stealing threat for us as well."
With 90 percent of the at-bats, runs and total bases returning from 2012 returning for this season, the players certainly feel the time is now to starting stringing crooked numbers together on the new scoreboard at Dudy Noble Field.
"I feel like it's important to let everybody know that I think the tradition is back," Rea said. "We've got guys who can do everything. We've got pieces of the puzzle."