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Taking a Victory Lap

Scintillating seniors pace Aggies as postseason nears.

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Vanderbilt pitcher Jordan Sheffield had been downright dominant entering his start at Texas A&M on May 5. Just days before, the sophomore was named the SEC Pitcher of the Week for the third time this season, and he carried a remarkable streak of 24 consecutive scoreless innings pitched into the top-5 tilt with the Aggies.

It didn't take long for Sheffield to become acquainted with Texas A&M's veterans.

A&M senior J.B. Moss quickly welcomed Sheffield to Blue Bell Park in the first inning by reaching base on a hard-hit ground ball that was misplayed by the Commodores' third baseman. After a pair of groundouts moved Moss to third base, another senior, Hunter Melton, strode to the plate. On a 1-1 count, Melton laced a hard line drive into left field to plate Moss and stake the Aggies to an early 1-0 lead.

The two swings of the bat by Moss and Melton provided the only run of the game. A&M's pitching was superb throughout, and the Aggies held on for a quality win to bolster their hopes for a top-eight national seed.

The look was a familiar one for fans of Texas A&M baseball: Seniors, who have spent their first years on campus as solid-but-not-spectacular contributors, exploding during their senior season to lead a team with serious College World Series aspirations.

Last year, it was designated hitter Mitchell Nau and shortstop Blake Allemand who made massive strides to help bring the Aggies within a whisper of Omaha. This season, Moss, Melton and catcher Michael Barash have enjoyed career years at the plate to help A&M rocket up the SEC standings and national polls.

Their production has provided coach Rob Childress' squad with a critical boost of confidence as postseason play looms.

"You expect big things from a leadership standpoint and production standpoint when you get those seniors back," said Childress, now in his 11th year in College Station. "Experience is the one thing you can't hide in the SEC. Having a lot of collegiate at bats under your belt is something that gives you a chance to be successful in this league."

 

One Last Go-Round

Much like 2015 when seniors Mitchell Nau and Blake Allemand erupted for career seasons, this year's trio of J.B. Moss, Hunter Melton and Michael Barash have seen their offensive numbers skyrocket. Their increased production--the three have a cumulative average of .333 compared to .266 in 2015--has helped push the Aggies to the top of the SEC.

The Aggies have certainly been successful thus far, racing to a 37-10 (16-8 SEC) record with two league series remaining. That includes a sparkling 27-3 mark in home games, as well series victories in seven of their first eight SEC weekends.

Melton, a first baseman from Corsicana, entered 2016 with a .281 career batting average. Initially tabbed as a pitcher at the start of his career with a low 90s fastball, Melton never quite developed on the mound. However, he saw playing time regularly in the infield and at designated hitter his first two seasons before starting 54 games last season at first and third base.

While he hit .300 as a junior, Melton wasn't satisfied. He watched with a keen eye as then-senior Nau elevated his average from .274 to a team-leading .365 after devoting his final offseason to taking extra care of his body, working out and dedicating himself completely to the team.

Melton followed Nau's example, losing nearly 20 pounds and spending more time than ever in the weight room. Observers quickly noticed his improved hitting and agility during fall practice, and Melton never missed a beat when the season began. By late April, he had already surpassed his 2015 totals in home runs and runs batted in, and he is significantly improved in every measurable offensive statistic.

With two league series remaining, Melton ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in batting average, slugging percentage, runs scored, home runs and hits, and he led the league in RBIs.

"I wanted to do whatever it takes to make this team better," said Melton, who was named the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Player of the Month in April. "I needed to be more agile, and I tried to dedicate myself in the fall to getting stronger and faster. Eating healthy takes a lot of dedication. I wanted to do that because I wanted to make my body feel better. It helps in all aspects of the game because you feel better and healthier when you come out here every day to go to work. It helps with confidence, too."

Confidence is a quality that has been a key to Moss' powerful senior season, as well. One of the top recruits in the state coming out of high school, Moss labored through three tough offensive seasons after arriving at A&M. In fact, he managed just 56 hits his first three seasons, good for a paltry .251 career batting average.

 

Moss started 2016 batting ninth, but coaches quickly boosted him up the lineup after he exploded for seven hits in his first 12 at bats to start the season. By March 1, he was hitting leadoff. On March 4 against Yale, in his second start at the top of the lineup, Moss opened the game by ripping a home run down the left field line. On April 26, Moss amazingly collected his 57th and 58th hits of the season, surpassing his entire career hit total in just 41 games this season.

"Confidence at this level of college baseball takes a lot of experience," Moss said. "For some guys, the confidence can come a little earlier, but for me, it took three-and-a-half, almost four years. I'm grateful for the people who have been there through the low times because there have been plenty of them. To see it all come together and pay off as a senior has been great so far."

Barash has also been dependable.

The Boca Raton, Fla., native transferred to A&M after the 2014 season via Palm Beach State College and LSU. The big-smiling catcher was a natural leader in his first season with the Aggies, and his final year may be even memorable. His walk-off home run in the ninth inning against Texas on March 15 earned him a permanent place in Aggie lore, and he provided two clutch RBIs in A&M's 11-8, extra innings victory at Arkansas on April 30.

Like Melton and Moss, Barash's offensive numbers are up across the board, and his .309 batting average through 45 games dwarfs his 2015 mark of .238.

As the clock turns toward the NCAA Tournament, A&M will continue to count on its seniors to lead the way. Assistant coach Will Bolt, a standout for Nebraska during his playing days, isn't surprised with the way A&M's trio is attacking their final year.

"Seniors see that their baseball life could be ending pretty quickly, so you can take it one of two ways," said Bolt. "They are choosing to go at it full force and doing everything possible to make sure they do their very best for the team. There's nothing they haven't seen, from playing in the SEC to regionals and super regionals. They've been beat up and picked themselves up and kept answering the call. They want to do whatever it takes."

Said Childress: "It's been fun watching them grow as young men and players as well. They're pretty special."

 

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2016 May

"Coming to Texas A&M definitely changed my life.

To those who support student-athletes by giving, I want to say thanks and gig 'em.

Without them, many young people who aren't financially stable or can't provide an education for themselves have a great opportunity. It makes A&M a better place."

Damontre Moore
Texas A&M Football Letterman, Miami Dolphins Defensive End