By JOEL COLEMAN
For most in life, the time usually comes when one must move on. Such has been the case for Wes Rea.
The former Mississippi State first baseman, a beloved figure for the Bulldogs over the course of his playing career from 2012 through 2015, now works alongside his father at Gulf Coast Business Supply in Gulfport. While he’s no longer hitting balls into Dudy Noble Field’s Left Field Lounge, Rea is still, as late MSU sportscaster Jack Crisitl might say, wrapped in maroon and white.
He frequently reminisces of his time at State, with one spring in particular standing out.
In 2013, MSU made a run to the College World Series Finals. Rea isn’t a historian, but he says he can recall that season almost moment by moment.
“It’s one of those things that I can tell you everything that happened,” Rea said. “I may not be able to do that for other times, but that 2013 run was something I’ll remember forever and remember every single detail about it.”
Fast-forward three years. A new crop of Bulldogs sits on the cusp of a run to Omaha, Nebraska and the College World Series. Beginning Friday at Dudy Noble Field, Mississippi State hosts Arizona in the best-of-three Starkville Super Regional. Two wins will send the Bulldogs to college baseball’s premier event for the 10th time in school history.
As MSU seeks its prize this weekend, one of its literally biggest supporters will be Rea. Rea thinks the makeup of his former team seems to be that of a unit that can go on a similar run to the one he experienced just a few years back.
“You just have to keep on doing what you’re doing,” Rea said. “I think they are going to do that. They have a ton of older guys to lean on. Someone like Jacob Robson, he was with us on that (2013) run and you can really see him leading behind the scenes. Guys like that know what it takes and it’s really cool to watch.”
While this year’s Bulldogs and the group that Rea remembers so fondly have experienced similar success, the two teams have won in different ways. The 2013 team rode an overpowering bullpen and timely hitting to the cusp of a national title. Rea has seen a different recipe in 2016.
“Their starting is a lot stronger than our starting pitching was,” Rea said. “They’ve hit for power this year. We had Hunter (Renfroe) and I’d hit a few (home runs), but personnel-wise, it’s totally different.”
The numbers back up Rea. The 2013 Bulldogs hit only 30 home runs all season and 16 of those came off the bat of Renfroe. This year, MSU has already hit 45 homers with five different players hitting five or more.
On the mound, the 2016 Bulldogs have consistently gotten quality starts from its starters. Though the bullpen has shined at times, it hasn’t had to shoulder anywhere near the 208 1/3-inning load that was placed on Chad Girodo, Ross Mitchell and Jonathan Holder in 2013.
“You either have to have a dominant club out of the bullpen, or you’ve got to be really good on the front end of ballgames,” MSU head coach John Cohen said when comparing the two teams. “One of those things has to happen for you to make a really deep run (in the postseason). This year is a little bit different from 2013 in that I think we’ve been more front end, but our back end has been pretty good too.”
For all the differences, Rea notices one key similarity between the 2013 and 2016 Bulldogs. The methods of winning changed, but the mentality is very much the same.
“The one thing that is similar is just the confidence,” Rea said. “When we got going (in 2013), we felt it and I’m sure people could see we had that feeling that no one was going to beat us. When you get that feeling and then your fans get that feeling, it’s like a chemistry develops. I feel like this (2016) group is the same way right now. Everybody feels it. It’s one of those good feelings. You get ready and the fans are blowing everything up. It’s just an exciting time.”
For both teams, confidence fostered a relaxed atmosphere.
“Any great baseball team is loose and has fun,” Rea said.
In 2013, the group known as the Bench Mobb kept teammates and fans alike laughing. Now, among others, Cole Gordon is a ring leader of MSU’s dugout shenanigans.
“(Gordon) helps us out and keeps us loose,” Robson said. “He’ll have Skittles in the dugout sometimes and if he feels like we’re down, he’ll pass out some Skittles and stuff. It’s very similar to what we did in 2013. Ross (Mitchell) would do that when he wasn’t pitching. He’d pass out candy or whatever. I think the biggest similarity is we just have fun. In 2013, that was one of our big themes was just to have fun because that’s why we’re here. There’s no use being here unless you’re having fun so I think we do a good job of remembering that. As serious as the games are, we do have lots of fun.”
Even MSU’s ultra-competitive head coach has appreciated the ability of the 2013 and 2016 squads to keep things light. More importantly, Cohen thinks the two teams’ quirky ways have distinguished them from each other.
“They’re fun to be around in the dugout,” Cohen said. “They have their own little traditions, and that’s really important. This 2016 team has their own traditions. They don’t have the same traditions that 2013 had. They created their own identity.”
Now, the 2016 team wants to differentiate itself even more from its predecessors by capturing the national title that slipped just outside the 2013 squad’s grasp. That all starts this weekend.
Rea is rooting for this year’s team to topple Arizona, head to Omaha and finish the job. Then, when those guys move on in life, they’ll have the chance to look back fondly on how it all went down, just as Rea likes to do now.
“Especially being out of ball now, all of us old-timers, we reminisce more than the guys that are still playing, but looking back, you can just remember it all because there were so many good times,” Rea said.
For this year’s team to get back to Omaha and have a chance to win it all, they’ll be relying on a fan base that has been a key component of Bulldog baseball for years. Rea experienced it in 2013 and throughout his MSU career, as has everyone that has ever worn the maroon and white. Now, Robson and this year’s Bulldogs are looking for one final push from the home faithful in the Starkville Super Regional.
“We expect the crowd to be very energetic and hopefully give (Arizona) a hard time this weekend,” Robson said. “They’re not used to playing in front of huge crowds. That’s going to be an advantage for us. If we come out and win this thing, there’s no telling what’s going to happen. I think the place is going to explode.”
Meanwhile, in the days that follow down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a certain burly former first baseman is sure to be grinning ear to ear. After all, a man might sometimes have to leave the Bulldogs, but you can’t take the Bulldog out of such a man.