STARKVILLE — Nestled down the third base line of Dudy Noble Field and buried three stories beneath the press box through coiling wires and steel beams sits the Mississippi State batting cages.
Tucked away from the public view, the cage offers a serenity for players whose days are filled with classes and nights consumed by the roaring adulation, and, in varying instances, the animosity of 10,000 fans coated in a smokey haze from the grills in the Left Field Lounge.
For most, the batting cage is a place to regroup. It’s a venue to right a minor hitch or find the timing one’s lacked in recent days. For Jordan Westburg, it’s the place he left day-after-day throughout the 2019 season with his hands bloodied and a mind still searching for answers.
“Being able to go through that long period of failing constantly, man, it humbles you a little bit,” Westburg said in his introductory press conference with the Baltimore Orioles on June 11. “It makes you realize that baseball is a game of failure and it’s something you’re going to have to deal with throughout your career.”
Dreaming of a career in professional baseball, Westburg’s sophomore campaign wore on him like a chainsaw through a tree limb. He finished the final 30 regular season games of 2019 with just six multi-hit contests. He also recorded just three hits in 14 at-bats during the College World Series as MSU again fell short of its elusive first national title.
Seated in the locker room beneath TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha following MSU’s season-ending loss to Louisville, Westburg spoke with optimism for a 2020 season in which he and classmates Justin Foscue, Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan — all players with legitimate shots at major league careers — would be upperclassmen. But his puffy and sullen eyes that minutes earlier bore painful tears that had since been wiped to the rubber floor told a different story.
Cut by the U.S. National Collegiate Team 12 days later — a squad Foscue and Allen both made — Westburg had hit an impasse. With his hands battered and mind beaten, he departed for the harbor town of Hyannis, Massachusetts for a month-long spell in baseball therapy, better known as the Cape Cod Collegiate Baseball League.
“He was a superstar about it,” MSU hitting coach Jake Gautreau told The Dispatch. “He said ‘I defended well. I did well while I was there, I didn’t hit very well.’ He went to Cape, got there and for him it was ‘Thanks for the opportunity Team USA, it was a great time. Now I’m going to go get to work.'”
Since its inception in 1885 and through its transition in the early and mid-20th century as a landing spot for baseball-playing GIs returning home from World War I and II, the Cape Cod League has developed into a haven of college baseball talent.
Transitioning to wood bat use in 1985, the Cape Cod League has sent 1,400 players to the major leagues in its decades-long history.
“It’s the best college baseball players in the country put on a little outlet of New England jutting into the ocean,” former Hyannis Harbor Hawks coach Chad Gassman told The Dispatch.
While the on-field competition is stiff, there’s a refreshing feel to the league. Players live with host parents throughout the tiny beach communities of Northeast Massachusetts. Practices amongst the league’s 10 clubs are sparse, or nonexistent. MLB scouts constantly in attendance offer some added pressure, sure. But on Cape Cod, the focus is on the game.
Arriving midway through the Harbor Hawks’ 2019 season, there was a business-like approach to Westburg’s days in Massachusetts. As some players spent off days on the beach, the New Braunfels, Texas native toiled in the gym almost every morning before sessions in the batting cages. Following almost daily games, his nights were consumed by dinners alongside his host family — Harbor Hawks’ General Manager and Barnstable Police detective Brian Guiney, his wife, Dawn, and 11-year-old son, Deignan, whom Westburg would spend his little down time with playing catch and giving hitting pointers. After the meal, lights were out by 10:30 or 11 p.m.
“He wasn’t staying up all night playing video games,” Brian Guiney told The Dispatch. “It was work.”
On the diamond, Westburg’s bat began to show signs of a rebound. A welcome addition to a squad that struggled to a combined .237 batting average, he hit .326 in 95 at-bats with 12 runs, 14 RBIs, six doubles and four home runs during his 25 games on Cape Cod.
“Our team didn’t have the greatest season, but he tried to give us a chance to win every night and you can see that when you’re coaching a young man like Jordan,” Gassman said. “…Every night he was trying to do what he could to help the team turn it around.”
In the field, Westburg improved on the versatility that made him half of the nation’s most formidable college middle-infield beside Foscue courtesy of longtime MSU coach Ron Polk.
Having spent eight summers coaching on Cape Cod coupled with the 29 years he helmed the baseball program in Starkville, Polk quickly connected with his latest Bulldog import.
Most days before a game, the longtime coaching veteran hosted infield practice for Westburg, Ole Miss shortstop Anthony Servideo and a handful of other Harbor Hawks. Emphasizing the speed in which they had to get to ground balls in order to catch runners in the Cape Cod League, Polk would time each player on how quickly they could retrieve a grounder hit toward them before asking them to guess their respective scores.
“The guy who came the closest to the (time) got a prize,” Polk explained to The Dispatch. “The prize was a hug from Coach Polk. The second closest guy got a handshake from me. The third guy, if there were three (players) out there, gets a nipple crusher. They had a ball with that.”
“I saw (Westburg) last year when I went out to practice one day (at Mississippi State) and I said, ‘How do your nipples feel?” Polk continued through a laugh. “He said, ‘I only had one all summer!’ But you know what it does, is it makes them pay attention. They didn’t want to have their nipple crushed.”
Twisting of chest protrusions aside, Westburg began to quell the hitting questions scouts asked of him after his sophomore season — finishing second on the team in batting average amongst players who appeared in more than 10 games and first in OPS and slugging percentage — while his glove improved consistently.
Heading back to Starkville for his junior campaign, Westburg’s confidence that he was hell-bent on finding at the bottom of the buckets of baseballs beneath Dudy Noble Field had returned.
“Being able to work through that and go up to The Cape and use it as motivation and learn from my failures and improve upon them just made me a better baseball player,” Westburg said. “It made me a more mature player and more mature person off the field as well.”
Watching the MLB Draft from his home in Starkville on June 9, Chris Lemonis began to fist pump.
Celebrating as Westburg, Foscue, and sophomore JT Ginn and MSU signees Austin Hendrick and Blaze Jordan were selected in this year’s five-round draft — a measure instituted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — each each pick brought with it it’s own sense of pride.
But there was a level of closure when it came to Westburg’s selection by the Baltimore Orioles at 9:02 p.m. that night as the first pick of the Competitive Balance Round and 30th overall.
“In the game of baseball a slump can do amazing things to you,” Lemonis told The Dispatch. “And I think him getting to The Cape, just relaxing — he made a couple small changes — but most of it was just getting in a good spot mentally and I think boy it really took off for him at that point.”
Entering the 2020 MLB Draft, scouts remained split on Westburg’s ability to hit at the next level. But with a summer on Cape Cod behind him and a shortened junior year in which he hit .317 with two home runs, six doubles and 11 RBIs in just 16 games, he’d given scouts a longer look at the raw hitting ability and work ethic that’s expected to carry him through the Orioles minor league system.
And while there are sure to be countless future hours spent in batting cages sorting through hitches and quirks that have yet to reveal themselves, the questions that left Westburg’s hands raw and bloodied in the Dudy Noble Field batting cages as a sophomore have since been answered.
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.