Mississippi State may only have to replace one starter on its infield but Brett Pirtle left some big shoes to fill.
Not only did Pirtle lead the Diamond Dogs in hitting but also flashed his leather at second base on more than a few occasions.
MSU skipper John Cohen feels that Chattahoochee Valley (Ala.) Community College transfer John Holland has what it takes to carry on in Pirtle’s absence.
Holland was a JUCO All-American as a sophomore after batting .406 with 82 hits, 70 runs, four home runs and 38 RBI while leading the Pirates to a state title. He was also selected as the Alabama Community College Conference Player of the Year.
“Losing Pirtle hurts, obviously,” said MSU shortstop Seth Heck. “He had an unbelievable year last year, but if you have to replace someone like that, you are not going to find a better guy than Holland. I think he has been really impressive. I am excited to see what he can do.”
Behind Holland at second base is another newcomer Matt Spruill. The Panola (Texas) College transfer hit .318 as a sophomore last season with 12 doubles, 32 RBI, 14 steals and 41 runs scored. Spruill racked up 64 hits in only 53 games in 2014.
The Bulldogs return a mainstay at first base in Wes Rea. The fifth-year senior is serving as a team co-captain for a third straight season. Rea has started 170 career games and owns a school-record .990 fielding percentage.
The 6-foot-5, 285-pounder led the team with five home runs in 2014 and has 17 long balls during his career. Rea is attempting to bounce back from a career-low .245 batting average last spring.
“I was kind of pressing last year and I think that is one of the things that hurt me,” Rea said. “Two years ago I had [Hunter] Renfroe, [Adam] Frazier and Pirtle all hitting in front of me. I felt a huge amount of pressure to fill their role last year.”
Two-way players Trent Waddell and Cole Gordon will back up Rea at first. Waddell is a redshirt junior transfer who hit .278 with 31 RBI at East Mississippi Community College last year. Gordon is a high school All-American from Tampa, Fla., who hit .420 with three homers and 22 RBI as a senior. The 6-foot-6, 240-pounder was the Class 7A Player of the Year.
Heck returns for his second season at shortstop and joins Rea as a senior team captain. Heck started 55 games for State last year committing just four errors in 139 chances. The Edmonds, Wash., native batted .299 with 61 hits, eight doubles and drove in 26.
Heck enters the season having reached base safely in 30 consecutive games.
“I am definitely more comfortable,” Heck said. “Having a year under my belt is huge. Now I am used to the fans, the media and everything else that comes with being a player at Mississippi State. Now I can focus on baseball. I know what SEC pitching is like and I know how to make adjustments to be successful.”
True freshman Ryan Gridley will backup Heck at short. The Milton, Ga., native hit .450 with 55 hits, 40 runs, 20 steals and 17 RBI in 37 games as a high school senior last spring. Gridley was named the Class 6A Region 5 Player of the Year and was also a 2013 Perfect Game Underclassmen All-American.
Matthew Britton is back at third base for his senior season. The Cullman, Ala., native logged 37 of his 42 starts last spring at the hot corner. He batted .233 with three doubles, a homer and 13 RBI.
He has appeared in 127 games and drawn 78 starts but has just a .209 career batting average.
Sophomore Luke Reynolds is also vying for the third base job. The Hinds Community College transfer earned first team, All-State honors batting .376 with 14 doubles, five triples, five home runs and 35 RBI while leading the Eagles to the NJCAA national championship game.
“It is certainly a transition from junior college to the Southeastern Conference, but he has all the characteristics that you are looking for,” Cohen said. “He can run and has arm strength, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Does it take a couple weeks? Does it take a month? Does it take a year? You just don’t know in our sport, but there’s no doubt that Luke Reynolds has a really bright future.”
Reid Humphreys also has the ability to play third but will log most of his innings in left field. Humphreys started twice at third as a true freshman last season.
In 2014, Mississippi State led the Southeastern Conference and finished fifth nationally with a .981 fielding percentage.