May 21, 2018 11:03:59 AM
STARKVILLE -- Jake Gautreau saw potential become inevitability in Columbia, Missouri.
The record gave Mississippi State baseball's assistant coach and recruiting coordinator little reason to feel that way, as MSU left that series with Missouri with an series-deciding extra-innings loss and a 1-5 record in conference. But Gautreau has a trained eye for talent, having left the sport's top representation agency, Boras Corp., to take this position. He saw the talent in his lineup, and it was with that series loss he saw the quality of at-bat rise.
That's the weekend he cited after the same lineup slugged .529 in sweeping No. 1 Florida.
Eight weeks after the signs first showed themselves to Gautreau, MSU (31-24, 15-15 Southeastern Conference) enters the SEC tournament as the best version of itself at the plate, hitting for more power than it has to date by no small margin. The Bulldogs used that power to climb up to the 9 seed, earning a first-round matchup with 8 LSU (33-23, 15-15 SEC) 4:30 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network).
"It's one of those deals where all I can really talk about is the kids," Gautreau told The Dispatch. "A lot of buy-in, the amount of hard work and the way they've started the course through the ups and downs, particularly really early, they're an incredible group of kids that turned into an incredible team and they know who they are, they know what they're about.
"We knew we had some guys in the lineup that had the ability to run a lot of balls in the gap and hit a few homers, but it wasn't until the last three or four weeks that we really start to see some balls run out into those gaps and over the wall, as well."
In the past 10 games, the Bulldogs have been at their most lethal. In its first 45 games, MSU averaged 2.6 extra-base hits per game; over the final 10, it's averaged 3.5. MSU has also gotten more out of its extra-base hits: its 10 home runs over its last 10 games is a dramatic increase from its 12 home runs over the first 45 games, going from roughly one home run every four games to one per game.
Gautreau and interim head coach Gary Henderson, from the macro perspective, see a lineup displaying consistency in its at-bats and swings, making better pitch selections and reaping the rewards of those two. On the micro level, each player producing more slugging has a slightly different answer.
For right fielder Elijah MacNamee -- he of two doubles, two home runs and eight runs driven in against the Gators -- it is a blend of opportunity and approach.
"I know if one thing doesn't go my way one at-bat, I've got another, and that's what's best for me. That's why I've been very successful lately," MacNamee told The Dispatch. "Coach Gautreau was in the big leagues for nine years, he's an insane hitter. He said, 'Loosen up your hands,' so I stayed in my legs and loosened up my hands. We do short-bat drills to stay through the ball. I think that's the thing, staying in my legs and staying through the ball."
Freshman first baseman Tanner Allen, on the other hand, never had a lack of usage to rebound from -- or anything else to rebound from, for that matter. He's been a consistent fixture in the lineup since opening day and has let his batting average dip below .275 for all of three days since the beginning of March. Even he is reaching new heights, doubling once and homering twice on the Gators.
"I think there's a freedom that comes with the confidence," Henderson said. "I know he works on pull side every day in batting practice, I see that every day, getting the barrel out there to get some power to the pull side, but I think the biggest piece is the confidence."
What makes Allen's late-season power surge most impressive is MSU prepared from weeks ahead to have the exact opposite.
Henderson first made mention of the so-called freshman wall as early as March: freshmen in college baseball are playing a 50-game season for the first time in their lives, an adjustment the body generally doesn't take well on the fly. Henderson's three decades of college baseball coaching, all of it since 2003 in the SEC, have told him it generally comes around final exams week.
That was two weeks ago and Allen is only getting better. In that stretch, fellow freshman, Rowdey Jordan, has taken over the left field and No. 2 lineup spot, entering the SEC tournament with a .299 batting average.
Recently, MacNamee has been the benefactor. With freshmen Allen and Jordan ahead of him reaching base at a .571 and .357 clip over the last 10 games, he has had no shortage of RBI opportunities. In them, he sees a group of players taking on the mentality of the upperclassmen they look up to.
They approach the plate, "going to damage a ball." MSU has done a lot of that recently.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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