Josh Hatcher’s college baseball career began at Hattiesburg’s Pete Taylor Park.
As a true freshman, Hatcher started at first base in Mississippi State’s 2018 season opener at Southern Miss. Nervous at first, the Georgia native settled in, going 3 for 4 and striking out both batters he faced after moving to the mound in the ninth inning.
“Once you go out there and once the first pitch is thrown and you take the first swing, it’s just like playing baseball again,” Hatcher said. “Everything calms back down, and you’re good to go.”
It’s been more than four years since that moment, and Hatcher is back in Hattiesburg with a lot on the line.
Now at Kennesaw State, Hatcher leads the Owls into the NCAA tournament in a regional hosted by Southern Miss. After three trips to Omaha in a “phenomenal” time with the Bulldogs, Hatcher is competing for another national championship to cap the season of his life.
“I always knew I was capable of this season,” Hatcher told The Dispatch. “This is how I’m capable of playing, and this is how I should play every year.”
From frustration to fulfillment
At Mississippi State, though, Hatcher couldn’t always do that.
He had a senior season to forget, finishing with a .189 average. A cold streak coinciding with the start of Southeastern Conference play eventually lost Hatcher his starting job at the end of April.
This year, Hatcher has turned things around. His 103 hits are tied for most in the country. He’s hitting .386 with 13 home runs and a program-record 25 doubles. He hit for the cycle twice in one week.
And he led Kennesaw State into the postseason, earning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament MVP award for helping the Owls win the league championship. KSU earned the No. 3 seed in the Hattiesburg Regional — its first NCAA tournament bid since 2014 — and opens play Friday against LSU.
Unlike the Owls, Hatcher is no stranger to playing deep into June.
“Being here, it feels normal, and it’s a thing that I’m really used to, so I would say it feels pretty good,” Hatcher said.
He went to Omaha as a freshman in 2018, starting 44 of the 48 games he played in. Hatcher started just 28 games the next season but was more productive, hitting .321 with a slugging percentage north of .500. He repeated the feat in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, starting all 16 games and batting .311.
But 2021 became a frustrating year for Hatcher. A .274 average one game into SEC play dipped ever downward as Hatcher went 7 for his next 61. Once out of the lineup, he found it hard to get into a rhythm.
“It was more mentally frustrating than anything,” he said. “Obviously, I can’t blame anybody else. What I do during the season is on me. I can’t put that on anybody else. I’m the only one who could have changed that last year.”
Hatcher hasn’t had to worry about that at Kennesaw State. He said the Owls’ coaching staff has stayed away from “tweaks” and big changes to his approach. A guarantee of regular at-bats has helped him keep the faith.
“That gives a player a really phenomenal sense of urgency and confidence as well knowing that I can go out there and go 4 for 4 or I can go out there and go 0 for 4; I’m going to play center field and lead off the next day,” Hatcher said.
That’s right: center field, a position new to Hatcher. He made just 14 appearances in the outfield in his four years in Starkville, playing primarily first base and seeing time at designated hitter.
But despite throwing left-handed — a rarity for the position — Hatcher knew what he wanted to do when he entered the transfer portal after the 2021 season.
“Transferring, one of the biggest things to me was being able to play center field,” he said. “This is the perfect opportunity for me to go out there and show people that I can play center field, and I feel like I’ve done that really well this year.”
Hatcher has made just one error in center at Kennesaw State, recording a .993 fielding percentage. His .648 slugging percentage at the plate leads the Owls by a wide margin.
The Albany, Georgia, product said he chose KSU in part because of connections. Four Lee County High School teammates — infielder Tyler Simon, outfielder Spencer Hanson and pitchers Malik Spratling and Smith Pinson — are all on the 2022 roster.
For Hatcher, they helped ease a transition he acknowledged can often be tough.
“They’re four of the best friends that I’ve had in my entire life,” he said. “I just knew they went there, and I thought it was the perfect place for me.”
Still hearing cowbells
Hatcher thought that back in high school, too. His original commitment wasn’t to the Bulldogs — it was to the Owls.
“Everything comes full circle,” Hatcher said. “I originally committed here, and by choosing not to go here and then ending up here and having the season I’m having, I don’t know if it was meant to be or it was fate or what it is, but I’m really enjoying it.”
But Mississippi State and other bigger schools came calling. Hatcher’s head was turned.
The facilities at MSU, he said, blew him away — even before Dudy Noble Field’s 2019 renovation.
“Everything there is state of the art,” Hatcher said. “The stadium just jumps off the page at you. That’s really the only thing that a high school kid who wants to go and play big-time college baseball needs to see.”
Hatcher said his four years at Mississippi State were “some of the best times of my life,” in part due to the Bulldogs’ postseason success. He was there as the Bulldogs went on the road to beat Florida State and Vanderbilt to make it to Omaha in 2018, held court at home in 2019 and made school history with a 2021 title.
“Being there three full seasons, playing in the College World Series three times and then ultimately winning the last one is something that I’ll cherish forever,” Hatcher said.
His four years in Starkville earned him plenty of lifelong fans. Even at KSU — five and a half hours east — Hatcher still sees Bulldogs fans in the stands, there to support him.
“I’ve heard some cowbells a bit throughout the year,” he said.
He might hear more.
Hatcher has heard from MSU supporters on social media all season, congratulating him on big moments — two cycles in three games; a two-homer contest against Liberty in the ASUN tournament; the Owls’ conference title.
Some of them have pledged to make the trip to Hattiesburg to watch him — just like they did so many days ago when Hatcher wore maroon and white.
“I think it’s kind of cool,” Hatcher said. “Not a lot of kids can say that once they transfer somewhere that that fanbase is still behind them and hoping they do well, so I think it’s really cool.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.