“I think I felt better today than I have in a really long time swinging the bat,” said Renfroe.
Renfroe’s big blasts, whichever side of the fence they ended up on, were more than enough margin for Mississippi State to start their home SEC series with the #3-ranked Razorbacks successfully. The Bulldogs are 16-7 and 2-2 in league play, while West Division leader Arkansas is 20-3 and 3-1.
If State can get more evenings, home or away, from Renfroe like this Friday then they could be returning to the rankings soon themselves. The sophomore rightfielder wasn’t able to leave the yard in his limited freshman appearances, and had gone 19 games this season still without a longball. But when he swung into a third-inning, first-pitch fastball from Arkansas’ D.J. Baxendale, well…
“I knew that one was gone, I’ve hit enough home runs in my lifetime I knew that one was gone.” How many home runs? “Over 200, easily. Way over 200.”
Yet this sure-thing shot was not Renfroe’s first Mississippi State homer. No, that had come in the opening inning on a somewhat shorter fly ball which did reach the centerfield warning track but not the wall. But the high drive was miss-read by Arkansas centerfielder Jacob Morris, who not only let it get off the glove but in the process crashed into the wall hard enough to stay down.
The result was an inside-the-park homer, the first by any Bulldog since graduate assistant Brad Corley turned the trick against Louisiana Tech in 2004. And, two big flies in Renfroe’s career column at last.
“Hunter is such a dynamic athlete, when he gets that bat in the right position some explosive things can happen,” Coach John Cohen said. Each homer produced two RBI and were the most dramatic contributions to Mississippi State scoring a pair in all their first four innings.
“Man, nothing like cushion!” said starting pitcher Chris Stratton. “We’ll take that more often for sure!”
Stratton’s pleasure was natural as he benefited more than anyone from all that early offense. The junior righthander was able to put in 7.0 full innings to get his fifth victory in as many decisions, allowing both Razorback runs on five hits with two walks and nine strikeouts. Stratton wasn’t as overpowering as the numbers looked; nor did he have to be anything nearly as strong as a week ago with a 17-strikeout evening at LSU.
Cushion meant he could throw and his defense catch, and throw just—just—107 pitches in the process. “Chris did exactly what we needed him to do,” Cohen said. “It’s very difficult to sit in the dugout after two-run innings and step out there and throw it in the strike zone, and that’s what he did.” Not that Stratton made it look too difficult working with a lead after a first-inning baserunner was caught stealing.
Friday’s opener was supposed to be a matchup of aces, but Baxendale (5-1) wasn’t himself. Or maybe it was the Bulldog batters showing a different look than Arkansas expected. Four Bulldogs had multiple hits including a 3-of-5 evening from leadoff man SS Adam Frazier. By the time Baxendale was allowed to exit he’d absorbed a career-worst eight runs, seven earned, on nine hits while walking one and striking out just two.
Renfroe wasn’t surprised at the squad’s success though. “We had a lot of good video on him, his arm slot was a little lower than usual and that’s what we focused on.”
That showed soon as Frazier opened State’s first inning with his first hit. Two outs later Renfroe lifted the drive to centerfield Morris couldn’t come down with, though the batter wasn’t thinking inside-parker as he rounded second base. “I looked at Coach (Lane) Burroughs and he was pointing at home plate and I said you’ve got to be crazy! It worked out for us.”
State’s second inning began with a single by C Mitch Slauter and walk of 1B Wes Rea. A bunt advanced both so 3B Demarcus Henderson could get one RBI with a fly ball, and Frazier drive in the other. In the third DH Trey Porter led off with a base hit bringing Renfroe back up. His huge shot took a long time to land, clearing two rows of vehicles in leftfield.
“Balls don’t leave this ballpark like that very often, but Hunter has that kind of power,” said Cohen.
An Arkansas fielding error at second base started State’s fourth, putting Henderson on for Frazier to move around with his third single. CF C.T. Bradford was plunked to load all bases with nobody out, and Porter dropped a single behind third base for the 8-2 lead. This finished Baxendale too.
“He had a tough night,” said Renfroe of the UA starter. “We just hit the ball against him. It was our night.”
And a fine night for Stratton. “I was trying not to overthrow, and just making the pitches when I needed to. We went a lot more changeups today than we did sliders, I think they weren’t really ready for that.”
With a 4-0 lead Stratton was touched for one run in the Arkansas third, as Morris knocked a one-out triple and scored on a ground ball. The MSU offense more than offset that, so a RBI-double by Sam Bates in the fourth could be overlooked as well.
“I left some balls up and the dominos almost started to fall. But we kept it down and ended up pitching a good game,” Stratton said. He struck out two to end the fourth, and fanned pairs again in the sixth and seventh to complete his stint.
While reliever Jonathan Holder warmed up the Bulldog offense was adding icing at Chris Oliver’s expense. Slauter was plunked, Rea doubled, and 2B Matthew Britton walked to load all posts. Substitute 3B Sam Frost made the most of his opportunity, swinging away on 2-2 and dropping a double just inside the rightfield line. It was his first extra-base hit of the year and worth two official RBI and another run scored in an infield error to boot for the 11-2 final margin.
Trent Daniel went 0.2 innings with no damage and Derrick Bleeker worked the MSU eighth with a hit and three strikeouts. Holder rolled a double-play in the top of the eighth and stranded one in the last turn as Arkansas left with seven base hits, though they did have two doubles and the triplet. State had an errorless evening in the field.
“Nine Ks takes a lot of pressure off a defense,” Cohen said. “But we’re also getting some weak contact and that is a credit to our pitching staff and the pitches they were making. Especially with two strikes.” Friday also saw the return of Bradford from his shoulder injury. He was hitless in five total trips though reached twice on a plunking and walk.
Slauter was 3-of-4 and scored twice for State, while Porter and Renfroe had two safeties apiece out of the 12 Bulldog base hits. An excellent evening, but Cohen is taking nothing for granted as now the Bulldogs face righthanded Ryne Stanek (5-0, 1.52 era) in Saturday’s rematch. “Because the guy tomorrow is electric, we’ve watched film and he has great velocity and a great breaking ball. We have to step up tomorrow like this didn’t even happen today and really have good at-bats.”
Lefthander Nick Routt (1-2, 4.05) will start for State with righthander Evan Mitchell ready in immediate long relief.