STARKVILLE — Mississippi State outfielder Tanner Allen’s post-practice routine is simple.
After helping shag balls and running through his necessary batting practice, he heads for the batting cages tucked in the underbelly of Dudy Noble Field to get in extra work. Swing after swing, he cracks baseballs. Some fly high; some are low; some are on a rope.
But after a recent practice, as Allen wove beneath MSU’s cathedral to college baseball, he heard the cracking of bats in the cages before he had arrived. It was a trio of freshmen taking extra reps.
“Practice is a big part of our program,” Allen said. “You’ve just got to come out and attack every day.”
In a normal year, neither Allen nor classmates Rowdey Jordan and Josh Hatcher would be playing in Starkville this spring. But with COVID-19 cutting the 2020 season short after just 16 games and the MLB draft being shortened from its usual 40 rounds to just five, all three return to an MSU roster poised for a legitimate run at the program’s first national championship.
“You come to school and you play and you expect to get drafted after your junior year, and then it kind of gets taken away from you,” Jordan explained. “Plans change, but at the end of the day it is what it is. There ain’t no changing it. It can be tough at times, but everything happens for a reason.”
In each of Allen, Hatcher and Jordan, there’s something a touch different about their games. Jordan is the most precocious of the bunch. A fast-talking, speedy center fielder out of Auburn, Alabama, he was given the unenviable task of replacing Southeastern Conference all-time hits leader Jake Mangum in the top of the Bulldogs’ lineup a year ago. Not one to hit for power, Jordan showed an ability to get on base at the top of the MSU order that proved invaluable through the Bulldogs’ pandemic-shortened campaign last season.
Allen is the most known commodity of the group. A one-time LSU commit, the Alabama native has been a fixture in the lineup since arriving on campus as a freshman. Not the largest guy at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Allen still swings with plenty of pop and has serious gap-to-gap power. Missing the bulk of last season due to a broken bone in his hand, he’s a career .315 hitter with 43 doubles and 12 home runs in parts of three years in Starkville.
And then there’s Hatcher. Last we saw the lefty, his double off the wall in Biloxi helped MSU to a two-game sweep of then No. 4 Texas Tech before COVID-19 canceled the rest of the season days later. Hatcher has spent less time in the lineup than most third-year guys who were expected to be drafted, but he seemed poised for a breakout year in 2020. Now back in the fold this spring, the Georgia product won’t hit for the most pop in the world, but he’s deadly in the gaps and is a likely candidate to lead MSU in extra-base hits.
“At the end of last year I was really hitting my stride; I was really starting to pick up and play how I know I can play, and then it gets cut short,” Hatcher said. “So we’re back home, and I just think I really started to work on what I needed to work on and what was comfortable for me. Then during the fall I came here and put it all together, and right now I just feel really, really good.”
With a stifling arsenal of arms on the mound, MSU, for the first time in recent memory, will be tasked with finding ways to manufacture more offense in 2021 given the losses of Westburg and Foscue to the professional ranks. The returning trio of Allen, Jordan and Hatcher should steady what will be an otherwise youthful starting lineup, as all three have played a full SEC slate.
And while Westburg, Foscue and a handful of others associated with MSU are off playing minor league ball, there’s a feeling among MSU’s three returning juniors that, for whatever reason it is they were passed up on draft night, sticking in Starkville for one more season feels right.
“I think, when it’s all said and done,” Jordan said, “I’m going to look back and I’m going to think this is going to be the best thing that’s ever happened for me.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.