March 31, 2014 9:04:21 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Tyler Barnes finally got the most precious commodity from his head coach: confidence.
After being in a slump for nearly a month, Starkville coach Travis Garner knew he needed to talk to his designated hitter.
"I went to him before the start of last week and we sat down to discuss his role because I needed him to know I felt like he was going to be a huge part of this team at some point," Garner said. "I told him 'I'm not down on you and actually it's the opposite because I know you're going to get hot at the plate'."
That's all Barnes needed to hear to turn it all around. After the conversation with his coach, Barnes went 6-for-9 in three victories against Madison Central and Greenwood last week.
"I kind of played him in that first Madison game on a hunch and he came out looking like a new player," Garner said. "He can be a real difference maker for this club if he continues to stay with the stick."
Barnes' performance led the senior to be named The Dispatch Player of the Week. In a crucial district game against Madison Central last Tuesday, Barnes was placed sixth in the Yellow Jackets order but knew his coach and teammates were convinced he would contribute.
"Knowing your coach and teammates believe in you is more than half the battle," Barnes said. "It takes the pressure off and then you can just go up there and focus on making good contact. Hitting is already difficult but it's impossible if you're down on yourself."
Barnes' first two at-bats in an 11-4 victory over Madison Central set the tone for the entire game. Barnes ripped a double to center and then led off the fourth inning with a deep home run to left field after he crushed a fastball.
"In high school, you're better off just looking for fastball and timing that up," Barnes said. "It's also no secret that normally the first pitch you'll see is a fastball so if it's around the plate, it may be the best thing you'll see in that at-bat."
Barnes continued his hot streak in a road game at Greenwood. In a 17-4 win, Barnes' only two plate appearances involved a walk in the first and a run-scoring single in a four-run second. Garner said one of the reasons he maintained his faith in Barnes was he saw him having difficulty making the transition from football to baseball. Barnes, an offensive lineman on the Yellow Jackets football team, needed the first month of the season to get fully healthy from the punishment your body takes in the fall at the line of scrimmage.
"Missing that fall season we had really hurt him because in all honesty my philosophy is completely different than the previous administration," Garner said. "This was a small ball program where it was about moving runners and bunting. I'm kind of a let them hit it guy and it was a different approach for him."
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound power bat loves the new philosophy of Garner and hopes he can lead the bottom of the SHS order to protect the stars in the 3-hole and cleanup spots (Tanner Clanton and AJ Brown).
"I'm not very good at bunting so if they wanted more small ball, I was always afraid of popping them up and suddenly I'm down 0-2 in the count," Barnes said. "I'll say this, if we hit behind Tanner and AJ, we don't think anybody can beat us."
In an 11-3 victory at Madison Central Friday, Barnes had a two-run single in the opening inning and a run-scoring single in the seven-run seventh frame.
"I've made some adjustments with my swing and it was dictated off my coach saying how important my production was to this team," Barnes said. "There's individual pride but when you feel important and your coach tells you that exactly, it's just human to work your tail off."
Last season Barnes hit .288 with 18 RBIs but struck out 25 times in 28 games. In this last week, he has managed to make contact on a more regular basis and become a feared element in the SHS order where pitches over the plate are now punished.
"Here's the deal, we've pitched it well and played defense all year," Garner said. "What Tyler does for us is make us more difficult to pitch to for that ace guy."
Barnes may be just finding his hitting stride as Starkville (11-5, 2-2 in region play) hosts Columbus (15-2, 2-2) for two critical region games this week starting with a 7 p.m. home contest tonight at Carlisle Field.
"He makes our lineup better because he has the threat to run the ball out of the yard with any swing when he's naturally trying to just make contact," Garner said. "Columbus is a team that has been around the block, has three or four college players on it and we're running a bunch of sophomores at them. It'll be fun, trust me."
Barnes is a senior leader on this Yellow Jackets team that has already circled the two games against Columbus as must win situations.
"We have to beat Columbus and the other result isn't an option because of who they are and where we both sit in the standings," Barnes said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.