By MATTHEW STEVENS
The recruiting pitch for the Mississippi State coaching staff could revolve around Daryl Norris and the new era of college baseball: the two-way player.
Norris was honored Monday for the second time in his career as the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound infielder and right-handed pitcher starred for the Bulldogs at the plate and on the mound last weekend in helping lead Mississippi State
to its first SEC series sweep in 34 series dating back to 2007.
When MSU head coach John Cohen was announced as the next leader of the Bulldogs program he knew the NCAA's new rule limiting Division 1 baseball rosters to 27 players would mean recruiting multi-talented athletes like Norris.
"It's essential and the moment I got back here it was my first thought was that we had no guys that could pitch and play everyday, absolutely none," Cohen said. "The best programs in the country now have those types of players and it's no accident."
The 2010 Alabama High School Player of the Year had a pair of multi-hit games and a .556 weekend batting average while scoring four runs this weekend. Norris then took the mound earning his first career win with a season-longest 5.1-inning relief appearance in State’s
sweep-clinching 5-0 shutout of No. 20 Auburn. He allowed two singles and retired 16 of the 18 batters faced to help secure State’s fourth shutout of the campaign and MSU’s first against an SEC opponent in 88 league games.
"They brought a lot of left-handed batters up hoping to get that lefty-righty matchup but I had a lot of sink on my two-seam fastball that let me get a lot of ground balls," Norris said Sunday.
In four relief appearances (12.0 IP) Norris has compiled a 0.75 ERA with a win, a save, 12 strikeouts and one run allowed. At the plate, he is hitting .359 with five doubles and slugging .469 with 18 RBIs.
“We are really proud of Daryl,” said MSU head coach John Cohen. “As a two-way player many times a young man can lose focus. But Daryl has been able to separate the two positions and be productive on a high level offensively and on the mound. We feel privileged to have several highly-skilled freshmen like Daryl contributing on our ball club this year.”
Norris along with other freshman C.T. Bradford and Taylor Stark have all spent time in dual-threat roles which has meant juggling batting drills, fielding work and bullpen session with MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson in the top-rated conference in college baseball.
"It's all about mental maturity and not getting too sped up," Cohen said. "Anybody can take a stop watch and radar gun to a game and measure things but man, it's so difficult to figure out that about a kid. That's why this group we've brought in is really the most mature bunch we've had."
Norris is leading all freshmen in the SEC with a .359 batting average and is among the first-year leaders in slugging percentage (.469) and RBIs with 18.
“Put it this way – the first time we let him start a game at designated hitter we put him fourth in the lineup," Cohen said. “That shows a lot of belief we have in him as a freshman.”
Last May, The SDN Bulldog Blog reported Norris, who was drawing huge interest from Major League Baseball scouts out of Fairhope (Ala.) High School last year, would be asking for at least $500,000 in a bonus to sign away his opportunity to play college baseball. Norris would be drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 46th round didn't sign with the organization owned by former Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.
Busby to make first-ever Division 1 start
Andrew Busby's reward for six solid relief appearances is his first-ever start on the mound tonight in a Division 1 baseball game.
The sophomore transfer from Wallace State in Hanceville, Ala., had 10 starts last season compiling a pair of complete-game efforts while ranking second on the team in innings pitched and strikeouts.
"We're excited to give him this opportunity and see how he reacts to simply being put this situation," Cohen said.
The Gardendale, Ala., native has allowed four earned runs in 8 1/3 innings with nine strikeouts and got his first victory in a mid-week relief performance on Feb. 22 against Northwestern State.
Busby (1-0) is one of seven pitchers on the MSU coaching staff's board that will see action in a 6:30 contest against Alabama A&M (3-20) including right-handed starter Kendall Graveman and southpaw relievers C.C. Watson, Chad Girodo and C.T. Bradford.
"All of these guys have about a one to two innings maximum limit because we'll want all of them to be available to throw on Friday night if necessary," Cohen said.
Following the Tuesday matchup with Alabama A&M, the Bulldogs play their next four and nine of their next 12 games away from home. State hosts No. 3 Florida April 8-10 as part of MSU’s annual spring homecoming celebration, Super Bulldog Weekend.
Mississippi State's first SEC sweep since 2007 climbed the program into the national rankings Monday, making their seasonal debut at No. 24 in this week’s Collegiate Baseball poll. It’s the first national ranking for State since the fourth week of the 2009 campaign and the highest national ranking since a No. 23 preseason ranking in 2008 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll.