STARKVILLE — As Mississippi State senior baseball player Seth Heck learned recently, there’s a first time for everything.
For Heck, who started 55 games at shortstop as a junior for the Bulldogs last season, the first time in question came just over three weeks ago, when he walked into the dugout at Dudy Noble Field and saw his name penciled into the Bulldogs’ lineup as always. Beside his name, however, was not that customary “6” denoting that he’d be starting at shortstop for the 81st straight game. Instead, there was a “5”, indicating Heck was headed to third base for the first time in his career.
“I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve even stood at third base,” said Heck on Thursday. “And I know I haven’t done it since I was 10 years old. But if that’s what the team needs, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Heck made the transition, and for the last three weeks, he has given the Bulldogs a new look at third base.
But he wouldn’t have been able to make the move if MSU didn’t have a ready-made replacement at shortstop. That’s where freshman Ryan Gridley enters the picture.
Gridley, from the Atlanta area, made his presence known early in his career at MSU, starting the sixth game of the season at second base and immediately laying claim to a spot in MSU’s batting order.
The freshman collected hits in nine of his first 15 at-bats, and has been a steady presence in the MSU lineup ever since. So with Gridley’s emergence, and the simultaneous surge from junior John Holland, MSU suddenly had three middle infielders and only two spots for them.
The solution? Moving Heck to third to plug that hole, and insert Gridley at shortstop.
“We like to put as many great athletes as we can in that infield,” said MSU coach John Cohen. “The guys we have in there now have proven that they are very capable of handling the job, and capable of making spectacular plays. We are pleased with where our defense is at right now.”
A big part of that defensive equation is the new left side of the infield. Heck fills a a vacancy at third, where three players – sophomore Luke Reynolds, junior Matt Spruill and senior Matthew Britton – combined for 14 errors in MSU’s first 30 games, and delivered just 24 hits in 117 at-bats. Needing a veteran presence at the hot corner, Cohen turned to Heck, who has started 37 of MSU’s 38 games and carries a .310 batting average. For Heck, the learning curve has been steep, but also rewarding.
“It’s definitely different,” said Heck. “It’s only 10 feet difference from playing short, but it’s a whole new world. The ball just gets on you so fast and you really can’t learn that until you experience it. It’s called the hot corner for a reason.”
Heck’s position switch was made possible by Gridley, the sure-handed high school star who was always destined to be MSU’s future shortstop. Just not this quickly.
His freshman season has impressed plenty of observers, including Heck.
“He’s done a great job,” said Heck of Gridley. “He obviously feels comfortable and we have a lot of confidence in him.”
Gridley has now started 12 games at shortstop, and he’s been solid. At the plate, the 5-foot-9, 160-pounder has maintained a high level of production, as his total of 17 RBIs ranks second on the team. Hitting at a .274 clip, Gridley has seven extra-base hits and he’s a perfect four-for-four in stolen base attempts. For Gridley, the move has been a dream come true.
“It’s definitely more natural for me to play short,” said Gridley. “I played it in high school, so I feel at home there. But I’ll feel at home wherever they play me.”
To Gridley, the move has been helped through assistance from Heck.
“He’s helped me out a lot with it,” said Gridley. “We always talk about positioning with each other, because we are new to this. It’s good to have him there because he’s a leader.”
The new left side of the infield has paid dividends. In last weekends series at No. 1 Texas A&M, Heck and Gridley took turns recording highlight-reel plays, including a diving catch of a line drive in the opener by Gridley.
For his part, Gridley believes the MSU infield, also featuring Holland and first baseman Wes Rea, has enjoyed an outstanding season.
“It’s the best defensive infield I’ve ever played with in my life,” said Gridley. “Wes picks every single ball we throw over there. John is quick, has a great arm and I trust him at second. Seth is just a great leader and he’s rock solid.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat