OMAHA, Neb. — Gary Henderson was talking about the wall as early as March.
His decades of college baseball experience told him most freshmen hit a breaking point, most of the time around final exams. It’s an understandable occurrence. Some national champions come close to 70 games as they close in on college baseball’s ultimate prize, a drastic workload increase from the typical high school season that rarely reach go beyond 40 games. All Henderson could do was have it on his mind and have a plan for when the time came.
This group of freshmen proved to be immune. When most freshmen let the grind of a long season wear them down, these freshmen started improving.
When Mississippi State (39-27) takes on Oregon State (51-11-1) 2 p.m. today (ESPN) with a spot in the national championship series up for grabs, it will likely do so with four freshmen in the starting lineup: designated hitter Jordan Westburg, third baseman Justin Foscue, first baseman Tanner Allen and left fielder Rowdey Jordan.
At some point, the magnitude of the moment overrides any physical discomfort they may be feeling.
“It’s just the mind-set of keep grinding through it. I’m at the biggest stage of my life right now, I can’t just fold, I have to keep pushing through it,” Foscue said. “You have that mind-set and that drive, I want to keep going. I don’t want to fold and give up.”
Take the beginning of MSU’s series at Alabama, which came on graduation weekend, as a starting point: Westburg has raised his batting average 55 points, Jordan has raised his 33 points and Allen has raised his 14 points. In that same stretch, Westburg has hit seven of his 11 doubles for the season and half of his 30 RBIs; Jordan has hit four of his seven home runs in that stretch and was on a six-game hitting streak before the first game of the College World Series against Washington.
Foscue credited the training staff, Brian Neal by name, for helping them get through minor aches and pains when they came. The increase in the production has more to do with a focus on what they face on the field than what they face off of it.
“I’m not talking as much about the wall as I am about the league,” MSU assistant coach Jake Gautreau said. “It’s more the arms they’re facing, the stuff they’re seeing every day. This league never lets you off the mat, so as a hitting coach, as you’re seeing the best arms in the country every weekend, that can be your wall.”
Gautreau is confident in his ability to get his players through it; all he asks of them is a hint on what they need.
Gautreau is big on wide open lanes of communication with each of his hitters. He wants them to tell him whether they understand a concept or they don’t, whether they like it or whether they don’t, even if they understand it but feel some mental block in executing it. When Gautreau feels like he isn’t getting that, he is not shy in telling them he needs more.
For the most part, he doesn’t have that problem.
“As long as there’s some comfort on their end and their understanding from the very beginning that I’m not going to try to make everybody the same,” Gautreau said. “The communication piece is huge.
“Now, whether it’s Rowdey Jordan or Jake Mangum we’re talking to them the same.”
The freshmen are starting to see themselves that way, too. They don’t see themselves as having anything to overcome.
“We’re really close to each other, keep that in mind, but I think all of us have that mind-set of doing our job,” Foscue said. “I think all of us realize that we’ve helped the team a lot; I don’t think it’s anything more than that.
“I don’t think anybody needs to be looking at the freshmen doing something. We came here for a reason.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson