By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – Can Mississippi State recreate the magic for a repeat run to the College World Series?
Junior first baseman and team captain Wes Rea certainly believes so. Rea promised a trip to Omaha prior to last season and after appearing in the CWS Championship Series those expectations have set the standard for 2014.
“I feel like this year it wasn’t as big of a deal letting people know what our expectations are,” Rea said. “They already know our expectations based on how we played and performed last year and the direction coach (John) Cohen has this program going. It’s just something people know, and there’s a sort of quiet confidence in the locker room.”
MSU has been ranked in the Top 10 in five preseason baseball polls – as highly as No. 2 by Collegiate Baseball. The Bulldogs finished 2013 with a 51-20 record and ranked No. 2 nationally. They open the season at 4 p.m. Friday against Hofstra at Dudy Noble Field.
The Diamond Dogs return 19 letter winners from a year ago and welcome the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class consisting of 19 newcomers.
Headlining State’s signing class were three players selected in last year’s MLB Draft, including Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year Reid Humphreys.
“I think our kids are really focused,” Cohen said. “It’s a great group to work with. I think we have tremendous leadership. I think we have some really advanced younger guys that have stepped up.”
Missing from the roster is right fielder and first-round draft pick Hunter Renfroe, shortstop Adam Frazier – the school’s single-season hit leader – as well as pitching ace Kendall Graveman and long reliever Chad Girodo.
Nine players from the 2013 team signed pro contracts.
But the Bulldogs have plenty of key cogs returning in All-American relievers Ross Mitchell and Jonathan Holder and five veteran positional starters. Rea returns at first base while Brett Pirtle (second base), Alex Detz (third base), Demarcus Henderson (outfield), Derrick Armstrong (outfield) and C.T. Bradford (centerfield) are all back for their senior campaigns.
Right-handed pitcher Brandon Woodruff is also expected to anchor the starting rotation of the pitching staff after returning from an injury-filled 2013.
“Once I was hurt, (pitching) coach (Butch) Thompson wouldn’t let me stray away and get away from the mental side of baseball,” Woodruff said. “He kept me focused in on everything and I think that’s where I grew the most during my injury.”
The former Wheeler standout is expected to start Friday’s season opener against Hofstra at 4 p.m. Right-handers Trevor Fitts, Ben Bracewell and Preston Brown are also vying for a spot in the starting rotation, along with freshmen Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton.
Junior Jacob Lindgren has switched roles from a starter to a lefty specialist out of the bullpen.
The Bulldogs will have to break in a new catcher this season. Nick Ammirati and Mitch Slauter were both lost to graduation, leaving four backstops in contention.
Former Amory and Itawamba Community College standout Zack Randolph, along with redshirt freshman Daniel Garner, both sat out last season while junior college transfer Cody Walker and freshman Gavin Collins are also in the mix at catcher.