March 1, 2014 8:19:27 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Saturday was freshman day at Dudy Noble Field.
The Mississippi State baseball team let its younger talent lead the way in a doubleheader sweep of Eastern Illinois and Michigan State.
At the plate, Bulldogs designated hitter Reid Humphreys won the first game against EIU with a rocket off the first pitch he saw in a pinch hitting situation in the ninth inning. With the bases loaded and two out, Humphreys' line drive literally knocked over EIU shortstop Dane Sauer and left him without a play. The game-winning RBI in the 4-3 win gave the Bulldogs a second straight late-inning victory. Humphreys reward for the walk-off hit was a start in the second game of the doubleheader and he promptly showed his power potential immediately.
Humphreys, who is the brother of Nationals outfielder Tyler Moore, sent a fastball over the wall in left field for his first career home run. Moore led the Bulldogs (9-4) in home runs during the 2008 season with 14 but wasn't as highly coveted out of high school as Humphreys, who was selected the Mr. Baseball in the state of Mississippi last year.
"There is going to come a day where we have our freshman now like (Gavin) Collins, Humphreys and (Daniel) Garner in our lineup with a lower seam baseball that will travel further," MSU coach John Cohen said. "That's exciting to me because they're already leaders and they're just getting their feet wet this year."
Humphreys finished Saturday 3 for 5 with two RBIs as he continues to get periodic at-bats in his freshman season behind Alex Detz at third base and designated hitter in the Bulldogs rotation. Humphreys led the MSU offense to a dominating 7-1 victory over Michigan State as the Spartans have lost three in a row in Starkville.
"It's definitely fun to go out there and have a role on the team even as a freshman," Humphreys said. "Look, I know I'm not going to be out there everyday and that's fine but I need to be focused when my time comes whenever that is."
Following a disastrous first start to his college career, Austin Sexton rebounded Saturday with a confidence-building performance the Huntsville, Ala., native desperately needed. The right-hander was constantly pumping first-pitch strikes to Michigan State hitters on the way to a impressive six-inning outing. Sexton allowed just three hits, two walks and calmly pitched his way out of any trouble in his 68-pitch start for his first career win.
"I thought he really pounded the strike zone well actually with three pitches in slider, fastball and change up," Cohen said. "It's really exciting to see him attack both sides of the plate because he's somebody we're really going to need."
Sexton never allowed Michigan State (4-5) hitters to get solid contact all game by forcing eight lazy fly ball outs and used his defense for a double play to end the 6th inning.
"I really wanted to focus on mixing in the change up for strikes to get their eye level different even if they made contact," Sexton said. "Last time I was going way too fast and sometimes you have to stop and take a breather when you're out there to calm down."
An answer to Mississippi State's preseason questions might have been found in the opening game Saturday in the form of Gavin Collins. The California native, who was rated as a Top 100 prospect by Baseball America coming out of high school, threw out four Eastern Illinois base runners in the first game Saturday. Collins did a very proficient job catching the diving breaking balls from Trevor Fitts as the junior allowed just one run over 6 2/3 innings.
"(Collins) is really starting to figure things out while he's out there but more than that he's managing the game so well," Cohen said. "It's not about just making visits and blocking out there. He gets when to go out there and what to say and what you're communicating."
At the plate at the bottom of the lineup, Collins had two hits and two runs as he upped his batting average to .278. The Bulldogs coaching staff desperately wanted the highly touted freshman, who suffered a severe injury in his senior year of high school to ensure his arrival at Mississippi State, to be able to establish himself in the normal two-men catching rotation by Southeastern Conference play. With runners only stealing 4 of 10 times against Collins, the freshman may just have the defensive mentality this Bulldogs staff look for in the mold of Wes Thigpen, Mitch Slauter and Nick Ammirati.
"He's becoming the person we think he can be as a skilled player back there," Cohen said. "Playing catcher in the SEC is a lot like playing quarterback in the SEC. You don't see a ton of freshmen that are doing that."
MSU used the small-ball tactic thanks to Derrick Armstrong tying a school record with four stolen bases in the second game against Michigan State. Armstrong tied a Bulldogs single-game record Saturday that had stood nearly 33 years after Brad Winkler accomplished the feat on March 11, 1981.
"Derrick is a guy that really go and that's just not a mystery about our club," Cohen said. "You look at four stolen bases is a heck of a day but he does it every day in front of us in practice."
Mississippi State will be riding a five-game winning streak since a confusing 4-4 start to the 2014 season. The Bulldogs will try to compete a 4-game sweep of the Diamond Classic at Dudy Noble Field with a 3 p.m. contest against Eastern Illinois (2-8). Mississippi State will try to accomplish that feat by sending a freshman to mound in right-hander Dakota Hudson (0-1, 2.57).
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.