STARKVILLE — Fa Leilua is coming home, but she’s already there.
Rounding third base after her two-run walk-off home run against Western Kentucky on Sunday, Mississippi State’s first baseman leaps to bump arms with assistant coach Tyler Bratton. She tilts her head back and roars into the blue sky above, then marches into the pile of Bulldog teammates who have formed a slapdash semicircle just behind home plate.
There, Leilua basks in a moment happier than the homer, better than the bat flip she delivered with emphasis as her game-ending round-tripper sailed beyond the left-field fence.
“The best part is just coming home and seeing the excitement, seeing my sisters who are surrounding home plate,” Leilua said. “My heart just melts. That reminds me that this is why I do this.”
“This,” she added, “is why I came back.”
‘She does it all’
Now in her sixth season of college softball and her third year at Mississippi State, Leilua chose to exercise her waiver for an extra season of competitive eligibility after the 2020 season was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with each of the 18 games the Bulldogs have played so far in 2021, Leilua’s impact on her team has grown greater.
Her walk-off job Sunday was her second straight game-ending home run after an eighth-inning solo shot broke a 5-5 tie against Alcorn State on Saturday. Junior outfielder Anna Kate Segars, who set up Leilua’s dramatic blast against the Hilltoppers with a two-run homer of her own in the sixth inning, said she’s happy to watch from the dugout or the on-deck circle as Leilua works her magic.
“When she’s on your team, you just sit back and you let her do the work,” Segars said. “She is clutch. She does it all.”
In her occasional opportunities to hit directly behind Leilua in the Bulldogs’ lineup, Segars attributed her success not to her own skill but what she learned from watching the veteran’s energetic presence at the plate and her ownership of the batter’s box.
“The reasons I’ve come through in those at-bats was not because of what I did but because of the courage and inspiration I got from watching her at-bats,” the junior said.
Segars said Leilua “has it all” — energy, fight and determination — and the graduate student has certainly put it on display in 2021. Through 18 games, she owns a .389 batting average, a .500 on-base clip and a .907 slugging percentage thanks to eight home runs on the season.
“She’s just such a spark. She’s a big presence at the plate and in the dugout and at practice,” Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts said.
Flips earn fans
Three of Leilua’s most recent homers, including the two that beat the Braves and Hilltoppers in succession, have gained national acclaim not for their dramatic circumstances but for what happened immediately afterward.
The bat flips — plural.
Most of Leilua’s long balls are accompanied by a no-look, end-over-end hurl of the bat for good measure. A video clip of one toss after Leilua’s home run off the scoreboard against Texas on Feb. 27 was posted by MLB’s Cut4 Twitter and Instagram accounts, which have nearly 1.7 million combined followers. Flips after her past two homers have also made the rounds on social media.
“I think it’s really great when it’s picked up by big-time accounts that maybe are only going to pick up baseball because it shows that we can do it, too, and our game is exciting and hopefully continues to draw in fans,” Ricketts said.
The coach said that after football, basketball and baseball, softball is the most popular sport in the country in terms of viewership and revenue. Growing the game through social media is the Bulldogs’ objective, and Leilua’s powerful bat flips have only helped.
“It’s definitely important for us — especially female sports — to put our platform onto a bigger stage like we deserve,” Ricketts said.
While many still see bat flips and other forms of emotion on the diamond as “disrespectful,” Leilua insists it’s the opposite — she and her teammates show their respect for the game by giving “110 percent” on the field at all times. It’s something Mississippi State learned when last season was abruptly suspended and ultimately canceled after the Bulldogs began with a 25-3 record, and the lesson persists.
“She’s not doing it to be disrespectful,” Ricketts said. “She does it because she just plays the game with so much passion because she knows what it means for it to be taken away from her. I love it, we embrace it, and we really want to continue to support her as she expresses herself the way she does on and off the field.”
Most people who watch the 20-second clips of Leilua going deep and flipping her bat down the first-base line aren’t seeing the whole picture, Ricketts said.
They don’t know the story behind how Leilua came to Mississippi State: as a transfer from Arizona State in August 2018 after her father, Sio, died suddenly of a heart attack over winter break that school year.
Leilua played just 17 games for the Sun Devils before stepping away from softball and receiving a medical redshirt. She sat out the rest of the season before transferring to Mississippi State over the summer and joining the team for the 2019 campaign. In the three years Leilua has been in Starkville, Ricketts said, she’s done a great job of growing into a leadership role with the Bulldogs.
“She’s one of our most mature, vocal leaders now,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know if that would have been a word I would have used to describe her in her first year, but I think she’s really learned how to be herself and to embrace herself and her teammates and understand that it’s OK that she doesn’t react like everyone else and that their words and their reactions might not be the same as hers.”
Now, Ricketts said, Leilua is someone who Mississippi State’s young players gravitate to, learn from and respond to.
“There’s lots of good players, but there’s no player like Fa Leilua,” Segars said. “I’m just so grateful to have her as a teammate and have her as a friend and have her as someone I can look up to and aspire to be.”
Above all, Leilua said, she’s just glad to be able to be her power-hitting, bat-flipping self while helping the Bulldogs roll.
“It’s definitely a blessing being a part of a program that allows you to be you, unapologetically,” she said. “… I encourage that to all hitters across the country: Be you. That’s most important.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.