June 10, 2011 9:55:00 AM
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jaron Shepherd could have the biggest spotlight of any Mississippi State baseball player during the Bulldogs'' NCAA Super Regional against the University of Florida.
The senior outfielder is bound to get a workout in right field against as many as five left-handed hitters in Florida''s potent lineup, which MSU coach John Cohen calls "the best in the nation."
The Gators led the SEC in home runs and belted four over the weekend in wins against Miami and Manhattan in the Gainesville regional. Right-center field at Perry Field is a power-alley favorite for Florida lefty Preston Tucker, who hit three of his 13 home runs this weekend.
"It''s two-fold," Cohen said. "Number one, [Shepherd] covers so much ground in the outfield. Two, the right side can play very small. It can also play very big. Having coached here, I know it can fool you. The ball can run out of there, and it doesn''t. It was the same way when I went to Kentucky. But I think Jaron''s gonna be a huge factor for us."
Shepherd, along with Brent Brownlee and freshman C.T. Bradford, give MSU speed and anticipation in the outfield, an area Cohen lauded from the beginning of the season. Even as Shepherd struggled at the plate and Brownlee missed 10 games due to a stress fracture, the trio have played an integral role in MSU''s defense, which had a greater onus at Dudy Noble, where the outfield plays bigger than most venues in the league.
The outfield was shuffled at times, even seeing infielders Ryan Collins and Nick Vickerson log innings in the corner outfield spots.
But down the last third of the season, Brownlee has solidified himself in left, while Shepherd became a fixture in right.
At Georgia Tech''s park, where MSU swept the Atlanta regional, the outfield play prevented a half-dozen hits by getting to fly-balls that normally would have dropped.
The scenario this weekend is similar to the championship game against Georgia Tech at the Atlanta regional: power-hitting lineup with favorable right-center alley.
MSU faces Florida today at 11 a.m. CT (ESPN2).
"This is probably one of the best (outfields) I''ve played with my entire baseball career," Shepherd said following Thursday''s practice, "[Fly-balls] carry a lot, to left to right and it kind of plays big in center. Fortunately, we have a fast outfield and Florida has good hitters, so I''m expecting a lot of balls to be put in play. With C.T. and Brent in center and left, I feel confident."
Last season, Shepherd struggled to hold down a starting spot but has started 45 games this season, including the last 21.
Coincidentally, Shepherd has raised his batting average from .259 to .295, peaking at .321 during that span as an everyday player. He went from hitting hitting anywhere from sixth to eighth in the lineup to cleanup, then solidifying himself as the five-hole hitter.
The key was changing his grip on the bat and staying behind pitches, Shepherd said.
"He''s a much more confident player," Cohen said. "He has a much better gameplan. I think he''s mature in every aspect. He''s done it all on his own and decided to do what it takes to be a much better player. I''m proud of him."
As the five-hole hitter behind cleanup hitter Nick Vickerson, who has driven in 10 runs in the last six games, SEC regular season batting champion Jarrod Parks, and surging leadoff man Bradford, Shepherd has had the table set to make a bigger impact at the plate this postseason. While he''s hit safely in four straight games and his driven in four runs in the last six, he hasn''t drawn a walk in seven games.
His worst game was against Florida in the SEC tournament, when he went 0-for-4 and had huge misses and pitches diving away from the plate.
Shepherd admits he won''t get as many favorable pitches batting in the five spot, but with runners on in many of those cases he should be doing a better job moving runners.
"It''s been great with C.T. getting hot and getting on base lately," Shepherd said. "They''re all good hitters and I love hitting behind them because you expect them to be on base to drive in runs.
Moving around the lineup, sometimes I tend to forget I''m in the five-hole and they''re not gonna give you anything to hit, but it''s something I''m still learning. Sometimes, they may happen to leave a pitch up and you just have to take what you can and drive it.
"I''ve been hitting balls right at people, but I still feel pretty good about the at-bats," Shepherd said, "but after a while they''re gonna start finding some holes to drop in."