February 18, 2011 8:36:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Of all the injuries Mississippi State''s baseball team endured last season, Jarrod Parks'' season-ending back surgery seemed to strike a deep nerve with coach John Cohen.
While it was difficult not to have Nick Routt, the team''s No. 1 pitcher in 2009, last season and to deal with the ripple effects Routt''s absence had on the pitching staff, Parks missed the opportunity to build on a promising junior season.
Cohen spent his first two recruiting classes stocking up on pitching, which left the team short on positional players when Parks, Brent Brownlee, and Frankie Rawdow were lost for the season.
MSU''s 2010 freshman class featured just one positional player: Infielder Sam Frost.
"We just missed him dramatically," Cohen said.
When Parks had a successful, pain-free summer ball campaign in the Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League, Cohen was excited to know Parks would be fit for his senior season.
"We get him back for another year," Cohen said. "His stroke, the quality of his at-bats, and defensive ability over the last two years have really improved. We have to keep him healthy."
Parks'' return to the infield should help ease the transition of replacing starting corner infielders Connor Powers and Russ Sneed. Powers and Sneed led the Bulldogs'' leaders in RBIs and were first and third in home runs, respectively, last season.
Five of MSU''s top 10 hitters from 2010 are gone, which puts even more onus on Parks providing the offense Cohen expects of him. Parks hit .125 in the Southeastern Conference in 2009 and played in only 20 games last season before being sidelined.
But standout stints in the Ripken league, where he hit .366 with six home runs in 2009 and .304 with a .494 on-base percentage, give hope Parks can help MSU overcome the loss of firepower.
The Bulldogs also hope Routt, who started 13 games as a freshman and went 5-3 with a 4.15 earned run average to earn SEC All Freshman team honors, will return. Routt appeared in six games last season before an arm injury ended his sophomore season.
Parks is in a position battle with one of the team''s leading returnees. Nick Vickerson, who also competed in the Ripken league last summer, started the second most games last season and hit .328. He trailed only Powers in on-base percentage at .447.
He also is Parks'' roommate.
Parks said the competition has been friendly, and both players are thriving because of it.
"I believe me and Nick have the ability to be the two best hitters on the team," Parks said. "I might be playing first when Nick''s playing third. It doesn''t really matter. Nick might move to second.
"Me and him are such good friends. We laugh at each other when we make errors. It''s competition, but we''re not gonna lose sleep over who starts and who doesn''t."
Ryan Collins'' time between first base and the outfield could affect how Cohen rotates Parks and Vickerson, though he said both players will be in the lineup.
The Bulldogs return an infield anchor in senior shortstop Jonathan Ogden, who played last season with a broken bone in his foot. Cohen said his defense and leadership are invaluable.
Vickerson had 19 errors last season, and having Parks paired with Ogden on the left side of the infield would give Cohen the infield defense he wants.
"Those guys are two of our best offensive players," Cohen said. "They''re special guys. I think Jarrod is very, very consistent defensively. In terms of the spectacular play, Nick might have him there just because he has phenomenal arm strength. Those two really complement each other."
MSU will play host to Akron at 4 p.m. today. The game is the first of a four-game homestand this weekend.