Sometimes baseball players have moments like Aunt Eunice or Jay did. Brent Rooker had one of those moments. The Mississippi State first baseman entered mid-April hitting .450 with 16 homers and led the SEC in almost every offensive category. He was basically living out the dreams many of us share - waiting for everything to come together and performing at your peak.
The epicenter of the Rooker barrage came in a home series in Starkville against Kentucky.
"Every time Rooker swung the bat, I felt the ball was going to go out," Kentucky coach Nick Mingione said. "Every .. swing … he ... took."
Fortunately for the Wildcats' coach, it only seemed that way. During the first game of the series, Rooker went 0-2 with a walk and a hit by pitch. Then came the second game where all he did was go 4-4 with three homers and six RBIs. After the four hits, three of them turning into souvenirs into the homemade rigs that surround the outfield wall, Mingione just intentionally walked Rooker.
Kentucky walked him even though there were already runners on first and second. Yep, he advanced two runners into scoring position to avoid pitching to Rooker.
"The game plan was not to let him beat us," said Mingione. "It didn't matter what we threw, he hit it out. Finally you get to the point where we are not even going to try to intentionally throw him balls, because they are ending up strikes and going out of the yard.
"So we just finally decided we were going to walk him and make somebody else beat us. I wish it wouldn't have taken three homers to do that. He was going through one of those phases where it didn't matter what anyone was going to throw him. If it was around the strike zone, he was getting barrel and it was going out. I have only seen a few players in that kind of place before."
It is the kind of moment hitters fantasize about but few ever enjoy. For those of us who will never know how that feels, just what is that like?
"There are times at the plate where you walk up there and literally you feel invincible," Rooker told D1baseball.com. "There is no way the guy on the mound is getting you out. It is that kind of confidence that comes with repeated success. Baseball becomes really fun and it slows down a lot.
"It seems easy at the time but as everybody knows, baseball is a really, really hard game," Rooker continued. "For short stints, it can seem easy when you are locked in. At the same time, those kinds of grooves can go away really quickly and the game speeds back up and gets really hard. You just try to stay in that mindset where the game is slow and try to focus for as long as you can."
When a player is going like Rooker was at the time, there just isn't much you can do from the opposing dugout.
"You just put him on." said Mingione. "I was even debating, with the bases loaded, do you put him on? They did that in the big leagues with Barry Bonds. You are just out one run. You go through in your mind, 'what are the chances of him getting a hit?' Well, he is hitting .450. So there is a 45% chance he is getting a hit. He had already hit five home runs that week. He is in place where even his mis-hits were falling in. Yep, just put him on."
Brent Rooker: A Historical Perspective
Through the years, there obviously have been countless great SEC hitters, many of whom went on to star in the big leagues. Few have had the aura that Rooker amassed in his half season in Starkville. Since the bats have changed, Rooker's season is reminiscent of a few other SEC stars. Matt LaPorta at Florida had a similar run. A.J. Reed at Kentucky had the power numbers as well. Andrew Benintendi enjoyed an incredible season at Arkansas. But Rooker is in position to do something none of those greats nor frankly, anyone else has done. He leads the SEC in batting average, home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases. Yep, he could win the conference's Triple Crown - the last SEC player to do so was Rafael Palmeiro in 1984 - and he could one-up him by taking the steals title as well.
"He is having a really special season," said Mississippi State coach Andy Cannizaro. "Each year there are typically one or two guys around the country that are having really incredible years and he is that guy this year. He has worked so hard and has earned everything he is getting. He is a great leader for our team."
Entering Tuesday's game in Pearl against Ole Miss, Rooker has a line of .400/.505/.877 with 16 homers, 58 RBIs, and is 16-20 in steal attempts. He has also slugged 20 doubles and been walked 28 times.
The batting average dropped 50 points in seven days. He was batting .450 a week earlier but in the last seven games went just 4-for-26. He hasn't homered since April 14 at South Carolina.
Everyone has those dips. But when you are hitting .450, any mini-slump affects your batting average more than most. Rooker has played 42 games and has 14 regular season scheduled games remaining. With 1-to-6 games in the SEC Tournament, 2-to-5 games in Regionals, a potential for 3 in the Supers and up to 7 in Omaha, he could have as many as 35 games left. While that may make batting over .400 more difficult, it could really aid his chase toward the Triple Crown.
Regardless of whether his run at the triple crown is successful, he is already having a historic season.
Last year, Florida's Pete Alonso and Ole Miss' J.B. Woodman led the SEC in homers with 14. Rooker has already eclipsed that mark with 16.
Jake Mangum, Rooker's teammate at State, hit .408 last season and was the first SEC player to hit over .400 since Raph Rhymes of LSU hit .431 in 2012.
In 2015, Benintendi hit 20 homers and hit .376 to lead the SEC in both categories. He was sixth in RBIs with 57.
In 2014, Kentucky's A.J. Reed slugged 23 homers and drove in a league-best 73 runs. He was tied for fifth in batting at .336.
The last SEC Triple Crown winner was Rafael Palmeiro who hit 29 homers, drove in 94 runs and hit for a .415 average. That was in 1984, 33 years ago.
"We are not talking about some random league," said Mingione. "There is a reason why this hasn't been done since Palmeiro. The SEC has 68 big leaguers right now. There are a lot of really good players who have played in this league and they have not done that."
None of those guys did everything Rooker is doing this season. The question now is can he pull out of his mini-slump and sustain the early season pace through the remainder of the year?
"That is the thing about this league is that it never stops," said Cannizaro. "The arms, they just keep coming and coming and he just continues to have success. He will continue to because he is a great hitter. He is very smart. He makes pitch to pitch adjustments at the plate. He is going to be a great hitter for a long time."
"He is the most dangerous guy," said South Alabama coach Mark Calvi whose team faced Rooker three times this season (Rooker went 3-10 with a double, homer, and 3 RBIs). "Rooker, there are not a lot of weaknesses there. He is a good runner. He hits for average and he hits for power. He can go out to all fields. He does everything that you want him to do and then some. No one has figured out how to get him out. When you think about it, he's getting hits 45 percent of the time. That is unbelievable. As the season goes on, you are thinking, no one can sustain that. You keep waiting to see if the well runs dry. That kid is no fluke. I don't know if there is a better one in the game."
How Rooker Got Here
This rise to stardom has not come quickly for Rooker. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound redshirt junior out of Germantown, Tenn., was a three-sport star in high school. He split his time between various sports - he was a football quarterback as well as a basketball player. He entered Mississippi State not quite ready for SEC pitching, especially those nasty breaking balls. Mingione, who was on the staff at MSU as an assistant for Rooker's first three years in Starkville, felt the redshirt year was just what a 19 year old Rooker needed.
Think about that for a minute … the SEC's top hitter was someone who not only didn't come in as a heralded professional prospect, he was an unpolished talent that used a redshirt season to help develop. He waited his turn and used not only the redshirt year but also his first year on the field to improve without that many in-game reps. It says a lot about his makeup.
"This guy is an unbelievable human being," Mingione said. "When you talk about having your priorities in order, this guy has got it. He is selfless. He is into the team. He is intellectual. I cannot tell you enough great things about him. He is the package. I was around him every day for three years. In three years I never saw him give one swing away. This guy is in love with hitting. He has watched every video. He has watched every drill.
"I always thought he could hit but I didn't know what position he would play," Mingione added.
"He is a really special player, a special hitter," said Cannizaro. "He is really bright and processes information so well at the plate. He is an absolute winner that I love coaching every single day."
After the redshirt season in 2014, in 2015 Rooker played in 34 of the team's 54 games with 18 starts as designated hitter and two in left field. He hit .257 in just 74 at bats with a pair of homers. Last season, despite playing with an ankle injury, Rooker appeared in 58 games, starting 53 as an outfielder and designated hitter. He hit .324 with 11 homers and 54 RBI and was playing well late in the year as the Bulldogs won the SEC regular season and won a regional. Minnesota took him in the 38th round last June.
"At the end of the year, it started clicking for him and he got some pro interest," Mingione said. "We basically had a conversation with him that went something like this, 'Brent if you come back to Mississippi State next year, you are going to be the SEC Player of the Year'. I told him that. You can ask him."
So we did.
Rooker confirmed that is exactly how it went down. "It meant a lot to me coming from a guy that had been around the league for as long as he has," Rooker explained. "He has seen a lot of players come through the SEC and knowing that he thought I could have that type of season was pretty special."
Why was Mingione so confident Rooker would take the next step into stardom?
"Here's why, he got hurt at the beginning of the year when he hurt his ankle," Mingione said. "Ankles can be slow to heal, especially with how he hits and how involved his lower half is. It just took him a while. So by the time he got healthy and got the other at bats, you could see it happening for him. It was a no-brainer he would break out.
"This guy is wired different," Mingione said. "The way he handles success. The way he handles failure. The way his brain handles pitching. The guy is an animal in the weight room. He loves to compete. He is not afraid."
But he hadn't reached his potential yet. This year he is healthy. But what does Rooker feel made the difference between a good season in 2016 and whatever superlative you want to slap on 2017?
"I think it just another year of experience of seeing SEC arms every day," said Rooker. "This past summer going to the Cape (Cod League) and seeing high caliber arms each day; learning to adjust to that. Learning how to combat what pitchers are are trying to do to me. There have been some physical changes to my swing in the off season that I worked really hard on."
So what kind of physical changes did he implement? Because just about everyone south of AAA wants to try the same thing.
"I made myself move more efficiently to make myself square balls up more consistently," Rooker said. "I added some adjustability into my swing. Just the combination of experience and hours and hours of work trying to perfect my skills."
His work has paid off in a big way.
"He is a different animal this year," said Cannizaro. "He is using the field. He is not chasing outside of the strike zone. He is recognizing spin. He has turned himself into a complete hitter."
He's Not Just A Hitter
For all of the talk about Rooker's offense, it is easy to overlook that the speedy, big armed once-outfielder is now a first baseman. He has grown into the role and even made a sparkling game-saving defensive play in bottom of the ninth at Ole Miss to end the game and give MSU the sweep.
Rooker played some first base in high school, but since he arrived at MSU, had been an outfielder for three seasons and it appeared he would remain there this spring. Then he got a text.
"We were playing Columbia on a Monday morning at 11 because we had had a game rained out," said Rooker. "Coach Cannizaro texted me at 6:30 AM and said, 'hey, can you play first base?"
"I said, 'I will try'. I played it that morning and then I have been over there every day since."
"Originally, it happened out of necessity," said Cannizaro. "We have had so many injuries and so many things happen to force us to play with a limited roster this year. We needed somebody to play first base and Brent had taken ground balls over there earlier in the year. He won the job that day and has continued to get better and better at it. The thing about Brent is he is such a coachable kid and he continues to improve because he works at it. He pays attention to details. He wants to be a good first baseman. Everybody is talking about all the stuff he is doing offensively and rightfully so, but he really has played a nice first base for us all year."
Rooker's team is now 28-14 and 13-5 in conference play. The Bulldogs continue to find creative ways to win games. They are coming off a weekend sweep of Alabama where they trailed in all three games and won each by a single run. They won the prior SEC series at South Carolina and Ole Miss along with home series against Kentucky and Tennessee. They haven't dropped an SEC series since Arkansas. They close at home versus Auburn, at Texas A&M and Georgia, and at home against LSU.
"We are playing really well," Rooker said prior to the series against Alabama. "The past few weekends we have played really well against some really good teams. I think we are surprising a lot of people with how well we are doing. We have a lot of young guys stepping up, a lot of inexperienced guys doing what we what needed them to do. They are maturing and we are building as a team and playing well."
"We are having a lot of success as a team," Cannizaro added. "We are playing with a lot of confidence. Our pitching staff has been outstanding. Coach (Gary) Henderson has done a phenomenal job navigating the bullpen with a limited staff. We are just playing at a high level."
No one is playing at a higher level than the Bulldogs' first baseman. His numbers may be surprising to some but for others, it is the natural destination for his combination of talent and work ethic.
"It all goes back to the way he is wired," said Mingione. "It was so obvious to me that this guy was going to be great. He had the tools and he was going to work his way into it. It was just a matter of time."
D1Baseball.com is the weekly contributor of the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Spotlight and assists with the Gold Standard Performance of the Week video series. D1Baseball.com provides news, analysis and commentary from writers: Aaron Fitt, Kendall Rogers, Mark Etheridge, Eric Sorenson, Shotgun Spratling, Michael Baumann and Dustin McComas.