Mississippi State players celebrate a Governor’s Cup win over Ole Miss Tuesday. Photo by: Blake Williams/MSU Athletic Media Relations
April 25, 2018 1:47:07 AM
PEARL -- Ole Miss catcher Nick Fortes stood up and stuck his left hand out to his side, signaling for the intentional walk. The crowd booed the decision, wanting to see the hometown boy, Mississippi State center fielder Jake Mangum, take an at-bat with the game on the line.
Luke Alexander didn't see it. As soon as the intentional walk signal was given, he dipped his head to the dirt in Trustmark Park where an on-deck circle would be and, "said some stuff to myself.
"The way I look at it, it's disrespect and it pissed me off," Alexander said. "Jake's the best hitter in the SEC and he has been for three years now, but I saw that as disrespect and I took it into my at-bat."
It was just 16 days ago that Alexander, as the defensive-minded shortstop with a sub-.230 average, sent Ole Miss (32-10) home with a series loss on a two-run walk-off home run. The three-game hitting streak with five RBIs over those games didn't deter Ole Miss from trying it again.
This time, Alexander delivered to the opposite field.
The junior from Belmont, playing against the school his father Nick attended, took a 1-1 low and away fastball to right field for a double, scoring pinch runner Jordan Anderson to tie the game and Mangum from first to win it, 7-6. Mangum checked up in between first and second base to watch Alexander's ball hit the ground -- not out of doubt, just for certainty's sake.
"I knew Luke would get it done, that's all I know," Mangum said.
A career plagued by hitting woes suddenly has a three-week stretch that will come to be known more than than the years that preceded it. Nick Alexander has not been blind to the building narrative -- "Everybody always criticized his hitting; I knew he could if he could just get healthy." -- and the proof of concept has arrived.
It turns out all that had to be done was get Luke mad.
"He's got that little bit of attitude: if you do that to me, I'm going to make you pay," Nick Alexander said.
A new piece of equipment may have helped, too.
Alexander described a short bat -- 28 inches, compared to his usual 33- or 34-inch stick -- that the program acquired to train players on getting the hands and bat inside pitches on the inside half. He was skeptical at first, but it only took two swings to get used to it, then only two or three weeks to see the results. Covering the inside half did not help him beat Ole Miss the second time, as he took an outside pitch the other way, but it did help him take an inside pitch for a home run the first time.
That's where the real reason for the run lies. Health helps, as his father alluded to, and equipment helped him make a mid-season adjustment, but the reason for the second walk-off -- plus the three doubles and three homes run in between -- was the first walk-off.
"I know I can hit, I know I can play this game at the highest level," Luke Alexander said. "The confidence I have right now, it's really helping me at the plate right now."
That's how, as he stood on deck, Alexander let his anger turn to resolve. Given three pitches to stew in the disrespect, he watched the fourth pitch go by, took two deep breaths and told himself, "Let's get it done again."
Once again, Alexander sent the Bulldogs (23-19) into a field-encompassing fervor. Once again, Lee VanHorn, MSU's assistant athletic director for administration and equipment, found himself throwing Alexander his jersey, the one that was torn off by his teammates in the celebration. Once again, Alexander sent a team whose season was once in doubt into its next challenge with the momentum of a team playing for it all.
And yet, the second time had something different; it may have been better. Once the formalities were over, the players that weren't crashing Alexander's postgame interview with a water cooler shower were taking pictures with fans and signing autographs. Others were passing around the Governor's Cup. It eventually worked its way to interim coach Gary Henderson, who let it hang from his right hand nonchalantly before taking it to a team meeting in the outfield, his arrival met with a roar.
The 16 days between walk-offs present two different teams. The first was in need of saving; the second is pouring it on in good times. MSU interim coach Gary Henderson can see something building up.
"I'd say it's pretty good right now, wouldn't you?"
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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