February 10, 2014 9:41:24 PM
STARKVILLE -- If there's ever a good omen for Mississippi State baseball, it's the new living situation for pitcher Brandon Woodruff.
The junior, who will get the opening day start Friday against Hofstra at 4 p.m., was invited by MSU first baseman Wes Rea to move into his off-campus house. The last occupant of Woodruff's new bedroom was a future first round pick in the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft in Hunter Renfroe. When Woodruff steps on the mound Friday afternoon, the thousands of MSU fans at Dudy Noble Field will be hoping for another similar resurgent junior season.
"It's so crazy at our house that as soon as Hunter moves out and Brandon moves in, the one constant is the phone won't stop ringing," Rea said with a smile.
Those phone calls were and still are from professional baseball scouts and management personnel all wanting to talk with Woodruff, another projected first round pick from the MSU roster. Woodruff has been the definition of developing potential in his first two seasons with the Bulldogs but is expected to be the dominant Friday night starter in 2014 similarly to when Chris Stratton was named 2012 Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year.
"Everybody is different but that junior year is crucial because every one of these kids wants to play professional baseball and that's the first year it is available to them," MSU coach John Cohen said. "There's a ton of incentive because after two years you want to show everybody that you've made that jump."
Rea, a co-captain on the 2014 season, invited Woodruff to move in based on their love of everything outside the baseball diamond: hunting and fishing. However, the fourth-year junior first baseman immediately made the connection on the diamond to Stratton's overall promise.
"This offseason is where he has grown mentally more than anything at all," Rea said. "We will go home and he's on his iPad looking at the film of the day he pitched and trying to grow as a pitcher. Everything physically and mentally reminds you of Chris Stratton and it's not a accident when that happens for a player."
In terms of mechanics and motion, Woodruff has begun to emulate Stratton's very deceptive delivery to the plate and incorporated more of his lower body to generate his power. Cohen and rest of the MSU coaching staff are hoping Woodruff's college career arc takes the same junior year path because right now they've eerily mirrored each other in two years at MSU.
At the beginning of the 2012 season, Stratton was trying to build confidence back after being knocked around badly in SEC play during his sophomore season. The star recruit from Tupelo was actually coming out of the bullpen for the first month of the campaign but eventually began to pile up innings and strikeouts once SEC play began.
"I've connected those two guys in my mind of Stratton and now Woodruff," MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said. "The thing I truly believe is Woodruff is mature and healthy enough to be what we all assumed he could be here. The timing is right."
By June, Stratton was hearing his name called in the first round of the MLB Draft by the San Francisco Giants and on his way to signing a $1.85 million bonus. At the plate in 2013, Renfroe went through the exact same mental and physical jump by establishing himself as a premier player in the college conference with the deepest pool of drafted talent each year. Renfroe finished the 2013 regular season as the SEC's leader with 15 home runs while sporting the league's second best .634 slugging percentage and also ranked among the SEC leaders in batting average (.352), on-base percentage (.440), RBIs (58), hits (80), runs scored (51) and total bases (144). On July 7 he signed with the San Diego Padres, after they took him 13th overall in the 2013 draft, for a $2.678 million deal.
Woodruff, a Wheeler native growing up just 25 miles north from Tupelo, has followed the career of Stratton intensely and even had the former MSU star watch one of his bullpen sessions Monday at Dudy Noble Field to get some insight before the start of this upcoming season.
"With Chris being here this week, I saw him and Brandon talking pitching in our locker room and it's really neat to see them just talk about how they both approach things," Cohen said. "There's a bond and connection that is obvious. Brandon may have a harder fastball and maybe Chris' slider was a little more refined at this point but Brandon can make that third-year jump."
For a team that got just 4.28 innings per start last season, Woodruff will be needed to help carry a reloaded starting rotation that according to Baseball America national college writer Aaron Fitt has the "nation's best bullpen going into 2014".
"It would certainly help if Woodruff can be that dominant element to the rotation on say a Friday night for Mississippi State," Fitt said. "When you know they're better than anybody in the country from the sixth inning on, Woodruff eating up innings would be a huge plus."
Woodruff struggled with shoulder problems throughout the 2013 season and eventually had to have season-ending surgery performed by Dr. Rusty Linton, the team surgeon in Columbus, after feeling tenderness in the elbow joint following a start against Ole Miss in Pearl. Woodruff finished with just 18 2/3 innings on the mound in eight games. He told The Dispatch last year it was "the first injury situation I had to deal with in my career".
While not being able to be on the active roster for MSU's historical run through the College World Series, the MSU teammates and leaders made a point to not allow Woodruff to feel isolated from the team.
"I know how that can go and it's not fun at all," MSU fifth-year senior Ben Bracewell said. "We had a responsibility to make sure even if he wasn't traveling with us to check in on him and ask him how he was doing because we knew he was a special talent."
The Wheeler native had struggled throughout this season as the former fifth round pick out of high school by the Texas Rangers in the 2011 MLB Draft had failed to get out of the second inning in three of his six starts.
In his last start against Ole Miss at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Woodruff lasted just 1 1/3 innings while allowing one run on three hits in 21 pitches. In that outing on April 9, Woodruff was unable to get the radar gun over 85 miles per hour on his fastball.
"The thing we're talking about is: Can you're mentally match your skill set?," Thompson said. "That's the goal I have for Brandon. I want him to have early success to build that confidence."
MSU fans are hoping if nothing else that Woodruff can get those positive vibes in his new bedroom through osmosis of a current millionaire.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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